I don't mind a bit of pathos when it comes to my comedies. In this world of post-Apatow comedies it seems like everyone is trying to reach the same emotional heights and laughs that Planes, Trains and Automobiles did over twenty-five years ago. But I'm starting to miss comedies that just try to make me laugh. I don't want this through a series of absurd and grotesquely escalating scenarios (I was tired of The Hangover before it even ended) but just the simple joy of talented people trying to make me laugh.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, to its credit, remembers the inherent warmth that comes from making people laugh. Unfortunately, it finally hits this stride with barely twenty minutes to go. Until then it's an uneven bag that's telling several different stories at once without finding the time to show any one as the dominant emotional thread or telling many good jokes in the process.
Wonderstone begins on a fairly solemn note that in no way signals some of the wacky physical humor to come. It opens as young Burt (Mason Cook) is chased around by some bullies who try to force him to eat bark. Burt, trying to lessen his humiliation, grabs a piece and starts happily chowing away. For his attempt at cleverness he gets punched, and goes home to an empty house with mom gone and instructions to Burt on how to bake his own birthday cake.
There's no attempt to make these moments funny. For a film that's ostensibly about a bunch of over-the-top magicians this sets a very depressing tone. It's not helped when Burt starts using his magic set to entertain himself and makes his only friend, Anton (Luke Vanek), who spends a lot of time in the guidance councilors office and the hospital. That is almost verbatim the dialogue and considering how much of the film is based off these moments I wonder if anyone thought to go back and try to make them funny or at least recall some of that emotion later on.
As adults Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) have built careers as gaudy Vegas magicians off of their humiliation. In a touch I'm sure Freud would find too easy to analyze, each section of their act functions as revenge wish-fulfillment or to embarrass their female assistants. Once again, interesting from a character study angle, but none of it is very funny or entertaining and most of it just comes off as mean.
So in addition to the bad childhood to arrogant adult plot-line there's a redemption plot line thrown in. Burt, once a wounded kid, has become unbearable and wants everything to go his way. This extra thread involves two more characters, the street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and his latest assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), who totally hates him and won't be in bed with him by the end of the film. I wish their roles were combined and we could have had just Jim Carrey handling both the professional and romantic tension but inspired touches aren't what this movie is about.
So what is it about? Too much. Burt's arrogance, his partnership problems with Anton, professional issues with Steve, potential romance with Jane, and so on. This might not be a problem if any of the threads were funny but they aren't. It does have its moments, especially with Carrey back more in a physical comedian fashion. His overblown messiah performer spending a night on hot coals alternately snoring and screaming in pain made me chuckle. I also loved the idea of a bar where all the declining magicians go nightly to use the same tricks on the world's most patient bartender.
Those fleeting moments of inspiration aren't enough to fuel the film. Still, there's no one to blame for how bland the final product turned out. The original script was written in 2006 and has gone through several revisions through the hands of at least six screenwriters before this last version. This helps explain why the film is all over the place and the cast and crew are at least happy to supply a lot of energy to the screen. Sometimes projects just get lost and can't find a way back.