In my opinion the genre that’s declined in quality more than any other in films in recent decades (with mainstream Hollywood films at least) is the comedy. Year after year, I see comedies that fall almost completely flat. Too often it seems as if they’ve been made for a trailer as opposed to an entire film. A sense of rhythm, timing and texture seems to have been lost. Sure, it’s great if the script has funny gags in them but if you don’t utilise them right, they can just die when seen by an audience.
A good example of this is ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’, a film that has a lot of good elements and potential (and does have some occasional laughs), but overall just doesn’t work.
The film begins in 1982 showing how young Burt Wonderstone developed his love of magic and met Anton Marvelton, forming a magic act. The film flashes forward to the present (now played by Steve Carell & Steve Buscemi) where they are highly successful Vegas stage magicians. But they’ve jaded and complacent (especially Burt) and challenged by radical street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) they break up and Burt’s life spirals out of control. Can he get back to the top?
The biggest problem this film has is that its tone and timing are so erratic. Sometimes it’s a farcical comedy with non-realistic gags flying everywhere. Sometimes it’s a ‘realistic’, sentimental film, such as the by-the-numbers unconvincing relationship and romance between Burt and Jane (Olivia Wilde).
As well the plot is a tedious mix of unbelievable and contrived events to get to its predictable conclusion. For example towards the latter stages of the film Burt appears at a child’s birthday party (that of his former boss) to do a magic show and for no good reason Steve Gray is an attendee, only so a confrontation between the pair can occur and the film can wheeze its way another step towards its conclusion.
The problem with the film’s tone are reflected in Carell’s performance as Burt. In the first half he portrays (reasonably amusingly) Burt as thoroughly narcissistic, jaded, sexist and obnoxious. And after a brief period of introspection, in the second half of the film Burt becomes considerate, thoughtful and well-meaning (more or less the stock Carell type). One can understand the character going through a character change but it’s done in such a perfunctory, lazy manner it distances one’s interest in the film.
It’s not surprising that the writers of this film also wrote 2011’s ‘Horrible Bosses’ as they have a similar tone – a smattering of good moments amongst an array of shock gags, perfunctory plotting and weak characterisation.
The film does have compensations, especially in the performance of Carrey. In his most enjoyable work in years, he’s very amusing as Gray. He creates a compelling persona where one can see why he garners such wide public appeal but also see his limitations and likely downfall through his egotism. To be frank, if the film had been centred around Gray, it would probably have been a better one.
Alan Arkin is also enjoyable as Rance Holloway (Burt’s inspiration for getting into magic). It’s been pleasing to see Arkin have a late-career renaissance since his Oscar for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as he shows that after all these decades, he’s always good to watch. However, his fairly realistic and enjoyable portrayal of an elderly, long-retired magician is jarring compared with the almost cartoon-like characters and farcical events elsewhere in the film. At no stage of the film does the tone properly mesh.
‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ does have its positive aspects and funny moments but put simply this isn’t a very good film. It’s just yet another example of the inability of present-day filmmakers to properly construct a comedy film.