The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on April 16, 2013

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Dear Victoria Wood
Wig Maker

Dear Victoria,

Comedy rarely feels more desperate than when it revolves around a bad wig. This elementary sight gag might be able to sustain a sketch, but can quickly fall apart when stretched over a feature. It all depends on how far your actors are willing to go to sell a look. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes that point abundantly clear. You were covering two of the top comedic minds of the decade, but only one of them was remotely the right fit. The other felt so out of place, I'm embarrassed he ever stepped out of his dressing room.

Don't feel too bad, though. The actual wig itself was the least offensive thing about Steve Carell's performance.

As the (undeservingly) titular star of a film, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) plays a kid who grows up wanting to learn the art of illusion to magically find friends. He does in Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), and together they become Vegas sensations a la Siegfried and Roy. But for reasons never truly explained, Burt distains his partner and feels like he should be a one-man show. His incredible narcissism allows for some amusing bits (like a dispassionate sex encounter with Community's Gillian Jacobs), and has the potential to be mined for a black comedy. Instead, Carrel is all over the map, and his ridiculously grandiose way of speaking and talking down to others just came across as a bad Will Ferrell impression.

Refreshingly, Jim Carrey appears in the film as a Criss Angel-style extreme street performer named Steve Gray. His brand of magic is putting Burt out of business, making Burt and Anton's show feel shallow and gimmicky. It's a perfect parallel of the actors themselves. Carrey comes across as the confident comedian, able to live in (and mutilate) the skin of a performance without ever breaking character. Carell, on the other hand, does a complete 180 with his performance and expects the audience to simply be fooled into thinking he's worth redeeming. His voice changes, his attitude changes, even his hair changes - but only to expose the film's own weaknesses as opposed to Burt's inner vulnerability. In terms of showmanship, it's like turning a Penn and Teller show into a stage reading of The Magician's Handbook.

Are you noticing how dated all these references are? I can't help but feel this script has been sitting on a shelf somewhere since the 90s. The style of humour is as out-of-touch as your hair pieces, but without the knowing nod. I realized the film was in trouble once Olivia Wilde, as an interchangeable stage assistant, earned the most genuine laughs just while being tossed around backstage. If the filmmakers would have stuck with that basic magic principle of loud distractions up front (like your hair) being at the service of subtle but impressive workmanship behind-the-scenes, this movie would have stood a fighting chance. Instead, one loud and distracting performance (without any help at the screenplay level) just turns the whole production into amateur hour.

Wanting to dye,


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