Chuck Koplinski: Wonderment lives in 'Incredible Burt Wonderstone'

My obsession with film began at an early age, and I got my hands on every book I could find on the subject at the local library. It was my father's fault that I had gotten hooked on cinema, and while he had no objections to my mania, he warned that if I learned how special effects were done or that certain actors I admired had feet of clay, then some of the magic I found in the movies might disappear.

While I didn't heed his words, I eventually came to realize what he was talking about. That idea of allowing yourself to be amazed, and the importance of letting a sense of childlike wonderment sweep over you occasionally, is at the core of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone."

On the surface, the film is a comedy — and a very good one at times — but beneath the laughs is a pointed indictment of our collective skepticism, bred from a cynicism that has been nurtured by being taken advantage of too often and our insistence on knowing how everything works in order to defend ourselves.

Steve Carell is the magician of the title, a self-absorbed performer who has been doing the same act on the Vegas Strip for 10 years with his socially awkward partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The act's ticket sales are dwindling, primarily because the routine has become a lifeless, rote exercise — but also because of competition in the form of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a David Blaine-type charlatan whose shtick consists not so much of magic tricks but of acts of self-abuse.

When Wonderstone and Marvelton attempt a desperate, misguided stunt of their own and it goes horribly wrong, they go their separate ways, leaving the former broke (his many investments have gone belly up, especially the one involving bottled Mexican water) and on the streets. However, salvation may be around the corner as a wannabe trickster, Jane (Olivia Wilde), encourages him to resurrect his act and veteran magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) agrees to be his mentor.

The film is spot on in its skewering of Blaine and others of his ilk. What with his edgy persona, Carrey is perfectly cast as Gray. The character's act has more in common with the asinine stunts as seen on "Jackass" than magic of any sort. Audiences flock to his street performances to witness carnage, not experience wonder, as his feats of holding his urine for 12 hours or staring for three days straight aren't far removed from Blaine's acts of being buried alive or frozen in ice for all the public to see.

Carell does a fine job showing us Wonderstone's transformation from a bouffanted buffoon back to being a true entertainer, one who knows the audience is there to be amazed, not treated as suckers. Arkin, of course, delivers the funny as his usual exasperated curmudgeon, while Wilde shows that she's capable of comedy, shining despite being saddled with an underwritten role.

However, if there's any magic in "Wonderstone" it's in its ability to remind us that the purpose of magic is to amaze and prompt us to delve into the seemingly impossible. That we might feel like a kid once more in seeing a watch disappear is just a pleasant side effect.

 

'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'

3 stars out of 4.

Cast: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek and David Copperfield.

Directed by Don Scardino; produced by Chris Bender, Tyler Mitchell, Jake Weiner and Steve Carell; screenplay by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley.

A New Line Cinema release. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Quartet" showcases veteran English cast. (3 stars) Sporting much the same vibe as "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut "Quartet" is a pleasant enough diversion that gets by on the charm of its actors.

There are no major surprises as it takes its cue from the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "Hey, let's put on a show!" flicks of yesteryear. No, more than anything this is an actor's, and a singer's showcase as well, as the script by Ronald Harwood deals with a retirement home for English musicians and features many veterans from the world of international opera.

The residents at Beecham House rely on routine and order. However, things are turned upside down when diva extraordinaire Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) becomes a resident. Never one to let anyone forget how magnificent she was ("I never took less than 12 curtain calls"), her presence ruffles more than a few feathers but none more so than those of her ex-husband Reggie (Tom Courtenay).

Distraught over her residency, he seeks the advice of his dearest friend, eternal flirt Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly). He's unable to offer much solace as he's concerned with the condition of his wife, Cissy (Pauline Collins), who is showing signs of dementia. And while they all have to contend with personal issues, they have a more pressing concern as they and the other residents must prepare for the annual Verdi gala, an event the home relies on so that its doors can stay open.

As I say, the film is predictable, but what makes it enjoyable is the sincerity of the cast to put this over. It goes without saying that Connolly dominates nearly every scene he's in what with his oversized personality, while Collins is quite touching, bringing a reserved poignancy as Cissy tries to hang on. Courtenay and Smith are fine as well, and when the four are on screen together, the film comes to life.

The conclusion is a bit too pat as the main conflict seemingly dissolves into thin air. However, Hoffman provides a light touch, only devoting brief amounts of time to the specter of death that's looming over all of the characters.

More bittersweet than maudlin, "Quartet" is a pleasant enough diversion and provides a showcase for the four principals who each prove that age hasn't dulled any of their gifts.

"Dead Man Down" intriguing exercise in misdirection. (3 stars) Nine times out of 10, when a movie isn't screened in advanced for critics, it generally means the studio that produced it knows it has a dog on its hands.

In the case of Niels Arden Oplev's "Dead Man Down," I suspect FilmDistrict had no idea what they were dealing with. At once an art house romance, as well as a nasty little B-movie noir, the film is an odd amalgam of elements that takes a while to find its footing but ultimately provides more than its fair share of surprises.

Working from a script by J.H. Wyman, the movie is constructed in such a way that the viewer is presented with a series of questions that are answered only after its characters are put through the wringer.

Victor (Colin Farrell) is a lieutenant for Alphonse (Terrence Howard), a drug lord looking to move up the food chain in New York City's underworld.

He seems to be at home in this den of vipers, but just why has he kidnapped a man he keeps tied up and blindfolded at the bottom of a rusting hulk of a ship?

And just what does his neighbor, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) want of him, and what are the secrets she hides behind her scarred face? And who is sending Alphonse cryptic notes and killing off his most trusted men?

The answers to these questions come none too soon as Oplev deliberately doles out key bits of information, many of which play against the viewer's expectations. This is especially true at the 20-minute mark, when Beatrice reveals that she knows something about Victor and she will use it to bring him down if he doesn't follow through on a horrific request she makes of him.

What was a pleasant, if awkward, first date between the two becomes an emotional nightmare for both as the woman displays a fury that can only be described as "biblical" with Rapace bringing the same ferocity to this moment that she did in Oplev's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Without question, "Dead Man Down" is not for all tastes and will probably leave more than a few viewers scratching their heads as they walk out of the theater. It's not every day you witness a slow-burn love story and a ruthless revenge tale told through a prism of extreme violence, buoyed by fine performances.

I for one found it to be an interesting exercise in misdirection as it played against expectations without resorting to cheap gimmicks or narrative sleight of hand.

It's an odd bundle of elements, but somehow it works.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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