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Bad Movie Tuesday: Burt Wonderstone and the Unlikable Lead

August 20, 2013

The incredible Burt Wonderstone movie poster

Burt Wonderstone is an incredibly odd film. It features fantastic actors, painful editing and the idea that Steve Carrell in orange make-up is funny. The movie is so simplistic in its homogenized writing and disdain for blue-collar work that it stands alongside the weirdness of Tom Hank’s detached Larry Crowne. The problem is the actors (sans Carrey) embrace archetypes instead of following the Will Ferrell school of unwarranted confidence turned to 11. The rags to riches story of Ricky Bobby was a massive hit because it managed to be unpredictable (Mos Def cameo) hilarious (Shake & Bake) and romantic (Amy Adams as the love interest) while following a well-worn formula.

The nice man becoming a selfish man who becomes a better man has long been a staple of cinema. The riches/rags/riches trope is familiar but when done right can be a powerful cinematic tool. Watching characters drag themselves out of the hubris muck towards humanity is wonderful when you like or identify with the person.  You care as they alienate true friends, go broke, find a love interest, discover a mentor because they emerge as a delightful human being.

Wonderstone didn’t grow up as a poor black child in Mississippi. He grew up in the home of a single parent and had a supportive best friend (Steve Buscemi). He rose to magical heights and headlined the biggest club in Vegas for ten years. He becomes terrible to women (makes them sign wavers for sex acts) treat his friends miserably (Poor Steve Buscemi) and has zero patience for new tricks (Jim Carrey’s bonkers routine as the Brain Rapist). Unlike Bill Murray in Scrooged there is zero personality to Burt so the journey and self actualization don’t mean squat. At the end of Scrooged you cheer for Murray because he earned his retribution. At the end of Burt you are annoyed at how simply things ended.

There is zero at stake because it is 100% paint by numbers. In Kingpin a naive Woody Harrelson lost his bowling hand and fell into alcoholism after Bill Murray dupes him. His problems were real and dangerous so it makes his rise all the more important. You cheer for Woody Harrelson as he tries to get his life back. You feel nothing for Burt because he put himself in the situation and continues to treat everyone terribly.  

The problem with Burt Wonderstone is that he has zero reason to be so terrible and his rise seems unearned. Steve Martin made a Jerk incredibly likable as he went from rags to riches to rags.  Martin believed people were shooting at cans and you believed in his silliness. When Carrell says he never knew room service only goes to bedrooms you grimace. Burt Wonderstone asks you to believe that Olivia Wilde would stay blindly loyal and that a magician like Burt couldn’t figure out how to do a routine on his own. An illusionist with big hair is not funny on its own. The character is not helped by Carrell’s detached performance that feels more like sleepwalking than selling a role. Performers have been able to rise above weak scripts but Carrell never takes the leap like Harrelson in Kingpin or Ferrell in Blades of Glory.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will be a forgotten entry on all the actor’s resumes. It never tries hard enough to be good, bad or so bad it is good. The box office result will hopefully push it’s creators and actors to invest heavily in character and not consider big hair and cheeky routines funny. It was nice to see Jim Carrey back in manic comedian mode as he drills his head, crosses his eyes and injects the only life into an odd film.

Don’t watch Burt Wonderstone. Check out The Jerk, Kingpin, Scrooged or Talladega Nights.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. johnleavengood permalink
    August 20, 2013 11:16 am

    Spot on deconstruction of the incredibly disappointing Burt Wonderstone.

    • August 20, 2013 11:20 am

      All I wanted to write was “insert fart noise here” but I trudged along and tried not to complain about it. It was a tough deconstruction. Thanks!

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