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Hollywood conjures another incredibly lazy comedy

'Burt Wonderstone' follows a predictable formula, minus the gross-out jokes

POSTED: March 14, 2013 12:30 a.m.

For the second week in a row, a movie fails to live up to the superlative in its title. “Oz the Great and Powerful” was neither great nor powerful, and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a far cry from incredible.

The story is agonizingly predictable. Magicians Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) have been best friends and partners since childhood. They’ve headlined a Vegas show for years, but the act has become stale. Meanwhile, street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is gaining a following by staging one over-the-top stunt after another.

The new generation of shock performers (can you say David Blaine?) is pushing out the old generation of venerable magicians.

Burt must lose his enormous ego to resurrect his career and become a character we care about. He gets help from young magician and required love interest Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his boyhood hero, legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).

I never did care about Burt. Nor did I believe that Jane, an intelligent, beautiful young woman, would care about him, either.

Nor did I believe Jane really needed Burt’s help to build her career. The movie’s gender roles are as out of date as Burt and Anton’s act.

Carrey, Arkin, Wilde and James Gandolfini, as a shallow and greedy casino owner, shine each time they’re on screen. That is, unfortunately, about the most positive thing there is to say about “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

The movie does deserve credit for what it is not. The filmmakers don’t go the way of Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and so many contemporary screen comedians who demean us with gross-out humor. Even when Carrey ventures into that territory, it is in a clever way.

But shouldn’t we expect a little more than that?

“Wonderstone” is a formulaic Hollywood comedy. Its only reason to exist is to make us laugh, and it doesn’t do that enough to justify the price of admission.

The truly incredible thing about “Wonderstone” is that Carell is the least funny actor in the movie.

I have enormous respect for Carell. Certain moments in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Little Miss Sunshine” are brilliant. He pulled off an amazing feat by reinventing Ricky Gervais’ lead character on the British version of “The Office” and making it completely his own.

And lately Carell has shown a willingness to take on thankless supporting roles (“Hope Springs”) and lead roles in little-seen but daring indie movies (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”).

All of this makes Carell’s ineffectual, forgettable performance in “Wonderstone” baffling. Buscemi, also enormously talented, doesn’t fare much better, but he somewhat gets a pass because he is supposed to be the straight man.

On the other hand, some of the movie’s biggest laughs come from characters with no more than a few lines. A nameless paramedic (John Francis Daley of “Freaks and Geeks”) deadpans a hilarious line in one scene. In another, a reporter (Vance DeGeneres of “The Daily Show”) provides the perfect, mortified reaction to Anton’s misguided humanitarian efforts to bring magic to starving Cambodian children.

Arkin, Carrey, Wilde and the numerous supporting players supply the modest laughs in “Burt Wonderstone,” while Carell sleepwalks through this tired movie.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on this movie, but here’s why. Movies are no longer cheap entertainment, not when a movie date costs at least $20 before you even buy a snack, at which point you really gets fleeced.

And yet Hollywood keeps pushing these lazy, paint-by-numbers comedies and expects us to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs simply because there are big names above the title. Then when the movie performs poorly, the entertainment press ponders why, inevitably citing changing demographics and increasing competition, as if it is the audience’s fault.

There is no magic formula or sleight of hand to fix the problem, Hollywood. The movies are bad. Plain and simple.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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