Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: March 14
Actor Steve Carell has a rare comic touch that can make people laugh without losing sight of the human being beneath the joke. It’s a skill he shares with greats like Bob Hope and Jack Lemon, and it’s put to good use in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone as he introduces one of Hollywood’s favourite themes: a high roller in need of a little humility.
Carell plays superstar magician Burt Wonderstone. He’s raked in millions on the Las Vegas strip with illusions as extravagant as his costumes. However his life-long partnership with Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) is falling victim to his overgrown ego. Burt is pretentious, vain, and unworried about remembering the name of his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). When street-savvy magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) starts eclipsing his career and ticket sales falter, Burt falls on hard times. He takes on the humiliating job of entertaining seniors in a retirement village and has a chance encounter with Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the illusionist who inspired him as a boy. Coming to terms with how much success has corrupted his character leads to some magical outcomes.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a ‘Prodigal Son’ story about how the longing for human approval can undermine ruin a life. Burt transforms from the awkward target of schoolyard bullies into a Sunset strip success but develops a laughable inability to appreciate others in the process. “Let me tell you about that Steve Gray,” he rants to the hotel manager who employs him. “All he does is mumble and cut himself – mumble and cut himself – my niece does that.”
In a recent media conference Carell and Carrey both admitted that the dangers of following popularity’s siren call were far from fictional. Carell says there’s nothing like fame to help you forget yourself and Burt, “… loses his joy and starts to think different about himself and about the world.” He certainly enjoys the fruits of success but a joyless succession of one-night stands makes it clear he’s found no real contentment. In a similar vein, Carrey shares that real life has taught him success has a built-in deficiency. For every high there is a corresponding low:
“There’s just moments of your life where you go, “Wow I can’t believe how insanely lucky I am,” and then you can turn around and the next moment feel so completely caught up in your own wanting, and desiring, and needing and feel like somehow you’re missing something. It’s just higher the high, the lower the low.”
The perils of desire are not a purely a worldly thing. They threaten every level of the Christian community as well. Carey’s picture is not that dissimilar from James’ description of the believer who’s puts pleasure over God:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.”
Pleasure is what a Christian finds when, paradoxically, they take their eyes off themselves. James’ goal was to turn his reader’s gaze towards God and ultimately others. Burt certainly gets as far as realizing he shouldn’t be the centre of attention:
“Along the way we forgot the most important thing – that Burt needs Anton and Anton needs Burt. Because that’s what a magical friendship is all about.”
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is first and foremost a comedy, aiming to produce laughter any way it can, from Carell’s masterful understatement to Carrey’s self-destructive stunts. Inevitably there are jokes that you would want to shield kids from – calling Gray’s magical act ‘The Brain Rapist’ is one. But behind the comedy is a theme as old as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – a selfish man learns love for others. It’s not the complete picture a Christian would present but realising our reliance on each other is certainly a start.