Burt Wonderstone

Escape what?

wonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins at the very top of Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, then quickly dips to the near-bottom and pulls some clever loops.  Thankfully, there’s some nuance.  Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the top of the Las Vegas magician circuit along with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  The duo perform a ten-year-old act in a theatre named after themselves, and their act is the exclusive property of tight-fisted hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who tolerates their show’s repetitive nature as long as they rake in the bucks.  Mixed in with their stage crew is the mature and intelligent Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician who looks up to Wonderstone until she realizes what a self-involved, sexist fop he really is.  Out of seemingly nowhere, magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), from the David Blaine/Criss Angel school of street-combing, heavy metal non-magic, appears on the scene and makes everyone wonder whether his act, which involves little more than self-mutilation, is the future of magic.

At this point, does anyone really care about the future of magic?  By “everyone,” I mean the real-life audience of this film, because the characters within are certainly concerned enough.  The great illusionists were the most wonderful novelties of their time, and even magicians like Blaine were enjoyable if you couldn’t figure out his year-one card tricks and could get past the fact that his enthusiastic onlookers were plants, but now, in the Age of Irony, the magic of magic would probably be lost on the Youtube generation, who are all too eager to type “FAKE!” in the comments section before a video even ends.

Burt Wonderstone is a formula screwball-comedy; any strange craft or activity could have been implemented in the place of Vegas magic shows for funny results.  The film does some interesting genre-hopping, however; much of the humor, particularly anything involving Jim Carrey, is dark and visceral (I actually looked away during one of Gray’s street tricks), but then, not five minutes later, we receive family-oriented dialogue about friendship.

With Gray becoming more popular, Wonderstone and Anton decide (with more than a little strong-arming from Doug) to change their act.  This leads to an amusing parody of one of David Blaine’s “stand still in public for a week” spectacles, and for these two, the results are calamitous.  With a friendship and a career in shambles, Wonderstone is reduced to rags (near-bottom of the graph!) and must, as we know he will, bounce back and reignite his career while learning a lesson or two about giving.  The problem at the outset is that he’s a horrible person.  His heightened “accent” makes Everett McGill sound like Morgan Freeman.  He’s also unbelievably bigoted, and tells Jane (who refuses to be either his sexed-up assistant or a one-night stand) that she can never be a famous magician because she’s “a girl.”  He also constantly refers to her as “Nicole,” the name of his previous assistant.  His very sincere apology concerning this behavior later in the film makes one wonder whether he’s just been playing a character his entire life.  He admits that he knew her name the entire time and deliberately objectified and insulted her.  Given the joyless and mechanical way he performs in the beginning (including sex with a groupie played by the multi-talented Gillian Jacobs), could he have been acting this way simply because it’s expected of him?  Worth thinking about.  Regardless, he becomes a much more sympathetic protagonist once he admits he was wrong, stops wearing a platinum blonde wig, and begins speaking like a normal person.  The “romance” between Burt and Jane, though, feels completely dialed-in, and I daresay it was not in the script until a big-name studio got involved.

The sexism chat leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.  Burt: “I’m sorry.  Back then, women did not have the same freedoms they have now.”  Jane: “It was a month ago.”

Alan Arkin appears as Rance Holloway, the magician whose home kits inspired Burt to do magic in the first place.  There’s some good era-specific humor when, in the 80s segment, Rance’s commercial states, “I’m Rance Holloway.  You’ve probably seen me on the Merv Griffin show.”  Whomever did Arkin’s makeup for this film should win an Oscar next year. Gandolfini plays the voracious Doug as a straightforward parody of Vegas hoteliers: he opens a billion-dollar resort named after himself (“The Doug”), cannot remember how old his son is, and has even fewer layers to his character than Virgil from True Romance.  Buscemi is hilarious and heartwarming as usual in these comedic roles that he loves, and after watching him for three years on Boardwalk Empire, this role is borderline novel.  Wilde plays Jane as a down-to-earth career woman whose character could have potentially been far more than a love interest (though she does achieve her dream of becoming The Astonishing Jane in the end).  Carrey’s Steve Gray is something else.  Even in middle-age, he’s successfully brought back the material he did in The Mask; a kooky niche character who, despite being crazy, manages to be more than a caricature.  Not much more, but Jim Carrey has effectively returned.  Gray is the quintessential celebrity magician who doesn’t care how his dangerous acts affect children.  Jane asks, after Gray mutilates himself at a birthday party, “What if kids try to copy you?”  Gray answers, “I’ll sue them.  It’s my trick.”  Finally, there’s a great cameo from David Copperfield, the guy who made me love magic shows when I was a kid.  I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I still cannot figure out how he did that “interact with your TV” trick wherein you always end up on the moon.

In this case, if you’re entirely sure about what you saw, you overthought it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; directed by Don Scardino; starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey.

Side Effects

And he guessed at the number of script rewrites as a child guesses at jellybeans in a jar

Rooney MaraBy the third act of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, you will feel lied to.  And appropriately: the film does what A Beautiful Mind did, but in the wrong way – making the audience think the story is about one thing, and then making it about something else.  Ron Howard’s film, based on a man’s true life experiences with auditory hallucinations, appeared at first (to the layman/non-trailer-watcher) to be about a math whiz inducted into the CIA due to his uncanny ability to make connections between important pieces of information, when in reality, he’s suffering from schizophrenia and inventing the entire thing.  Here, we have a story that at first purports to be about a “very sick girl” suffering from serious depression and being riddled with useless medications, and most refreshingly, seems to be one of the only honest movies about depression itself, but it isn’t that.  It turns out to be – and I don’t use this term lightly – ugh.

The linchpin by which this film remains what the casual viewer would call a “pretty good movie” and not a total wash is, of course, Rooney Mara, who plays the main character – named Emily Taylor – and who gleamed as Lisbeth Salander in 2011 (and was more worthy of the Best Actress Oscar than anyone else nominated that year).  The story begins when Emily picks up her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a four year prison sentence and attempts to reconnect.  There are no longer any sparks, however, and Emily is severely depressed, going through episodes that the couple’s friends and Martin himself simply cannot understand.  Finally, she goes to see psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a recently-married doctor who sees an opportunity for extra money by participating in a study of some new depression meds.  He prescribes them to Emily, who is desperate for any relief whatsoever, and they’re seemingly ineffective.  While sleepwalking one night, Emily stabs Martin to death and calmly goes back to bed, her bare feet soaked with blood.

Now we have a real dilemma: who is at fault?  Emily, who physically performed the killing and doesn’t remember a thing, or Banks, who prescribed the pills that turned her into a sleepwalking, knife-wielding zombie?  Banks, feeling sympathy for Emily and wanting to clear his name, as his entire life – including his practice (his partners do not want to be affiliated with someone who so recklessly caused a tragedy) and his wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw) – is threatened.  Wonderful, I said to myself.  Finally, a story in an accessible medium that sympathizes with people who have spent their lives suffering from depression (myself included), identifies with their interior plights, quietly observes their very real struggles, illustrates so vividly the fact that non-depressed people cannot understand what we go through, and even demonizes the opportunistic pharmaceutical industry for haphazardly tossing pills and miracle cures our way; there’s even a commentary on the misleading, cheery ads with supposed formerly-depressed people prancing along beaches with their laughably photogenic families.

Not quite.  Side Effects is that film insofar as Reservoir Dogs is a film about Madonna.  Soderbergh pulls the curtain away and reveals the fact that he really wanted to make a neo-noir movie about a Holmes-like detective trying to investigate his way out of a legal and marital nightmare.  After an extended bout of gumshoeing, Banks deduces that Emily faked the entire thing in an elaborate scheme that also involved her ex-therapist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as the two wished only to make exorbitant sums of money through stock market manipulation (there’s a fortune to be made if a popular drug kills a patient).  Through one thing and another, Banks puts into motion his own dastardly scheme for revenge and freedom, winning his life back in a painfully obvious post-test-audiences ending that left me with my palm glued to my forehead.

So if you watch the second half, you get the opposite of what I thought the film would be (and of some importance, what the film was marketed as).  I do not like the implication that depressed people are “faking” their symptoms or exploiting the sympathy of others.  Thinking about it makes my third eye hurt.  In fact, any attempt at critical analysis causes this film’s internal logic (or lack thereof) to collapse: How was it so easy for Emily to murder her actual husband of five years?  Why would Emily act drugged when being injected with saline solution if she knew it would tip her hand?  Why would Dierdre think John would take photos of a patient in her underwear and then send them to their shared home?  Why wouldn’t she recognize the handwriting on the envelope as someone else’s?  How would rigging the stock market by murdering someone and hoping for victory in a very specific type of lawsuit seem like a viable get-rich-quick scheme to any thinking person?  Martin (Emily’s husband) knew about her depressions, as if these episodes were something they’d been dealing with together ever since they’d met. If she wasn’t really depressed, we’re supposed to think she’s been maintaining this ruse for five years?  Why is Martin seen as a simple murder victim and tragic figure; why does the film forget that he is a real criminal?  Why do both of the film’s principle female characters turn out to be the evil schemers?  Other than the titillation it provides male viewers with, why did Emily need to initiate a romantic relationship with Siebert in order to make the scheme work (it paints gay people in an unnecessarily negative light)?  Why is Banks, the doctor who admitted to prescribing ineffectual meds to a desperate person (and thus taking advantage of a patient, whether or not she turned out to be scamming him) so easily exonerated by the narrative?  Why is it seen as “okay” for him to get revenge by sending Emily away and prescribing her with additional medication she doesn’t need, essentially turning her into a real zombie and severely abusing his oath as a doctor?  How is Emily legally sent back to the ward after being declared legally “not crazy” barely a day before (any basic scrutiny of the legal system, which I’d expect from filmmakers who spend a third of their movie in a court, would tell you that this can’t happen)?  The film’s non-logic sends one’s head into enough of a cyclone to make even my dumbest question – Why do Emily and Siebert basically bite each other’s lips instead of actually kissing? – seem full of critical merit.

Mara’s performance and the score by Thomas Newman keep the film afloat, and the latter will remind some of Hitchcock’s strategic use of tension-building music (though I am reluctant to compare every single thriller featuring atmospheric music to a Hitchcock movie; this film doesn’t hold any other resemblance).  Jude Law is convincing as usual, and despite its ludicrous pitfalls and dialed-in ending, the film manages to keep interest.  Hopefully, enough good films about mental illness are floating around as to render this film’s potentially-dangerous underlying message innocuous.

You have to admit one thing, though: killer or not, you still want to root for Emily when she’s sitting in front of an abusive male doctor who angrily dismisses her and prescribes harmful medications – both times.

Side Effects (2013); written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.