Thursday 14 March 2013

Bag of tricks: "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"

What was once referred to as the New American Comedy is getting old, and having to recycle many of its better ideas. Don Scardino's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone proceeds from the startpoint that magic - like dodgeball, and the ice skating commemorated in Blades of Glory - is an inherently nerdy (and therefore funny) pursuit, no matter how many tattoos the brooding likes of Dynamo and David Blaine might accumulate. So it is that high-school rejects Burt Weinzelstein and Anthony Murtz have reinvented themselves as Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton (Steves Carell and Buscemi), Vegas legends with Siegfried and Roy hair who specialise in the kind of dorky illusions that almost write themselves. (Of course this pair emerge on stage to the Steve Miller Band's tragically dated "Abracadabra".)

Yet after thirty years of friendship, cracks are beginning to show. Burt's ego has simply grown too big to pass through any trapdoor. Ticket sales are plunging. And the duo face a new threat with the emergence of street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a long-haired, Christ-like figure whose stunts, like holding in his urine for four days straight ("live on Intense TV"), usually involve some degree of physical pain or discomfort, and - shot on handicam, with an eye to future YouTube uploads - are interpreted as somehow sexier and more real than Burt and Anton's phony posing.

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley previously wrote the improbably successful Horrible Bosses, and this has the feel of something that emerged from a similar drawer: we get some good laughs, coupled to an underlying sense nobody here is really straining themselves to push the envelope or reinvent the wheel. The central narrative joist - two men who realise they can't function without each other - is wearing thin now, and the whole remains unsurprisingly male: Olivia Wilde, as Burt and Anton's glamorous assistant Jane, continues to build a career for herself accepting the scraps many less pliable actresses would have tossed aside.

On the surface, at least, Scardino keeps up a consistent flow of funny ideas - Burt gabbling singlehandedly through the routines he and the injured Anton once performed together, Anton's ill-fated charity trip to Cambodia, a casino called Doug - and superior casting helps. Though Buscemi is sidelined far too early for the film to be anywhere near great, Carell's sideways shuffle into Stiller-ish unsympathetic territory does at least break a run of roles (Dan in Real Life, Hope Springs, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) that merely called upon the actor to be ordinary, not funny.

Carrey, in an appreciable comeback, gives it the same welcome jolts of energy as the celebrity cameos in Scardino's 30 Rock day job; best of all is Alan Arkin, kvetching under spray-on hair in what Dodgeball obliged us to refer to as the Rip Torn role: the comedy mentor who stops being cranky long enough to nudge the protagonist back in the direction of redemption. It's not magic, exactly - typical of its latent laziness: pretty much all of its tricks are pulled off with the aid of CGI - but it'll painlessly kill a couple of hours on your next long-haul flight, and it's obviously preferable to Mitchell and Webb's Magicians.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens nationwide tomorrow.

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