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.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Don’t be yourself: good advice for most Hollywood directors

Crazy, Stupid, Love is Ficarra/Requa’s new feature-length RomCom concerning the romantic escapades of several good people.  Kevin Bacon’s in it, too.

The film is the big debut of Steve Carell after his dramatic exeunt from The Office, and as usual, he plays a likable, hapless man with zero luck and the best intentions.  Carell’s character, Cal Weaver, leaps out of a moving car after his wife, Emily (the lovely-as-ever Julianne Moore) declares her desire to get divorced.  Simultaneously, Cal’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), thirteen years old, declares his love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), four years his senior, who rejects Robbie’s advances in surprise and disgust.  Cal begins spending time at a local bar – which looks more like a high-end casino than any bar I’ve ever seen – and has a chance meeting with Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a wealthy, well-dressed womanizer who promises to teach Cal the tricks of the trade in order to help win Emily back.  The only woman Jacob hasn’t been able to rustle is Hannah (Emma Stone), who can’t stand his pickup lines, doesn’t find him attractive, and already has a boyfriend (Josh Groban).  With one thing and another, these respective parties inevitably cross paths in several hysterical, clever, and sometimes downright touching ways.

I have to respect the writer/director(s) for just that: having respect for the audience.  In a day and age where filmmakers feel they need to spoon-feed every thread of story information to the iPhone-obsessed ADD public, here’s a film which introduces several characters, apparently not connected in any way, right at the outset of the story, and leaves it to the viewer to remember who each character is without constantly repeating information and retreading tired plot points.  I wish this method of telling a story as though telling it to someone older than five wasn’t such a lost art form in films these days.

The performances are solid through and through.  The actors avoid playing characters who are expecting a clean-cut happy ending.  The film even features appearances from Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, the latter of whom plays David Lindhagen, the many-times-named accountant who steals Emily from Cal, and he does a good job of playing the character as a real person and not a generic sleazeball whose only mission is to spite the protagonist (the Spiteful Sleaze, as seen in so many easy plot formulas for this type of film).

The character growth is genuine, albeit achieved through preposterous circumstances which could only occur in film.  Conversations are interrupted at near-miraculous times, but they’re always finished later.  In addition, the film’s single plot twist is well-executed and unexpected (yet inevitable when you think about it in retrospect, which to me is the best kind of twist, if we need one at all).  The filmmakers shoot for an uplifting ending (because it’s a date movie) and achieve much more, because their respect for their audience never wanes.  Not everyone gets the girl (or guy), there’s no moral lesson, and the dynamics of a somewhat dysfunctional family are left fully intact even when optimism wins out.

Go figure.  A RomCom which achieves both parts of its name, as well as being an engaging family drama.  Characters are made to say difficult things to the people they care about, the title is never blurted out, and there’s barely an ounce of the crude humor that seems so par-for-the-course with any type of comedy nowadays.

There’s also a great big editing error featuring Emma Stone’s legs.  Happy hunting.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.; written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. 

 

Dinner For Schmucks

Be nice to your goats

It becomes evident within the first twenty minutes of Dinner For Schmucks that that “schmucks” in question are the very people attending the dinner.  At the onset, the movie reminded me of a film I wrote and worked on – Slices – which featured characters meeting when the protagonist (straight man) hits the secondary main character (funny man) with a car, following which he gives him a ride, and the adventure begins.  I was flabbergasted until I remembered that when I was writing Slices in 2007, I was creating a project in the vein of conventional double-act comedy.  After that, I was able to enjoy myself.

The film features Steve Carell as the funny man and Paul Rudd as the straight man.  Rudd’s character, Tim Conrad, is offered a high-paying position at the company he works at (by the time the film is halfway done, you won’t remember what the company is or what they do or what they’re called; you’ll just remember that they’re a classic group of misogynistic suit-wearing pricks with a ton of money).  As part of the company’s tradition, Tim is required to attend a company dinner and bring along an “idiot” to make fun of.  Why this would be funny or plausible in real life without the “idiots” realizing what was going on is beyond me, but it makes for an interesting comedic premise, to be sure.

Of course, Tim decides to bring Barry Speck (Carell), a taxidermist who collects dead mice and creates colorful dioramas with the corpses.  After a fight with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Sztostak), Tim is left with Barry, who mistakes which night the dinner is.  Together they adventure through L.A. in hopes of bringing Julie back, running into a nice cast of bizarre characters including Tim’s insane ex, Darla (Lucy Punch); Barry’s mind-controlling IRS boss, Therman (Zack Galifianakis), and eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), with whom Julie is thought to be cheating on Tim.  Clement brings yet another quirky and well-acted performance to a comedy film, all but stealing the show again in this one.  As Vollard tells us, “There are only two things in this world: wonderful, visceral, sexy sex; and death.  Horrible, boring death.”

The film also features Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston and David Walliams in small roles, as well as Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show With John Stewart‘s “senior black correspondent,” and Kristen Shaal (also of Flight of the Conchords and The Daily Show).   It seems as though Stewart’s show is now a gateway into comedy films and larger comedy careers in general, as exemplified by Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Rob Riggle and Rob Corddry.

The performances and direction fit the bill.  It’s a well-cast film with an ear for comedy, though it doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as the recent Date Night or Get Him to the Greek.  The film perhaps makes up for it with some truly touching moments, including a scene where we find out exactly what some of Barry’s weirdest dioramas are really referring to.  The dinner itself, the film’s centerpiece, has a lot to live up to, and while it’s not chock-full of gut-busting one-liners, it’s got enough color and bon-mot-flinging to satisfy.  It even features appearances by Patrick Fischler of ABC’s Lost and Jeff Dunham, who does his annoying ventriloquism thing.

Despite not containing one occasion of the word “schmucks,” the film is a charmer with some real heart, not to mention Steve Carell on his comedy A-game.  Go see it, for schmuck’s sake.

Dinner For Schmucks (2010); written by David Guion; directed by Jay Roach; starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement.

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