With the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell stable of comedies grinding to a halt in the last few years, fans of dementedly off-colour comedy have endured something of a drought recently. Working from a script by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (yes, that’s Sam Weir from Freaks and Geeks), Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey manage to light up the screen with a wealth of uproarious moments, even if the 15 rating seems somewhat lost on material this mild.
Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been friends since childhood and are now the top magic act in Las Vegas. However, a failed stunt that critically injures Anton causes the two to part ways, while an audacious street magician, Steve Gray (Carrey), looks set to take their coveted spot.
Burt must convince Anton to return to his side in order to reclaim both their title and their friendship. It’s a pretty standard comic set-up, but one shot through with such barmy enthusiasm and unexpected sweetness that you’ll soon forget it follows a familiar path.
If Carell’s Wonderstone is essentially Michael Scott the Magician with his ego cranked up a few notches, it is a role the actor can play to perfection; here his Burt is fantastically lacking in self-awareness and hilariously attired, fitted with a ludicrous feathered wig for extra laughs. Buscemi, the more dialed-back of the two, nevertheless shines in a rare starring role outside of his show Boardwalk Empire, as the under-appreciated yet more grounded half of the pair.
Like so many comedies of this sort, it’s a film that thrives thoroughly on its crackerjack supporting cast; James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr and even David Copperfield (indeed, cameoing as himself) all garner a few hearty laughs, but the real meat is written for Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey.
Arkin, as the interminably old magic legend Burt and Anton grew up idolising, again proves how peppy his comic timing is, while Olivia Wilde plays a compelling straight foil to Carrey’s sexually presumptuous lead (mirroring the Ron Burgundy-Veronica Corningstone relationship), and Carrey pretty much steals every scene he’s in as the street mage who isn’t so much about illusions as testing the limits of his pain threshold.
Playing a thinly-veiled mockery of shock-magicians like David Blaine, Carrey not only looks the part decked out in flowing, dyed, straightend locks, but delivers what is easily his best work since 2009′s I Love You Phillip Morris – he is off-the-charts manic.
Even if all the beats unfold exactly as you expect, it’s the film’s quirkily unrestrained sense of humour that sees it through, from the cartoonish exaggeration of the characters to the ludicrously overblown nature of the tricks themselves (often achieved through visual effects). It’s clear that everyone working on the project is having a lot of fun, and this transpires through to the audience; it’s got a clever undercurrent running through most of the humour, though its foremost concern is to beguile with its off-kilter nature.
It’s just a shame that the film didn’t do more with its 15 rating (though it is a PG-13 in the US); something a little more abrasive and dark could have propelled this into the realm of comic genius. Still, the softer tone helps its inherent sweetness to payoff; this is, after all, a film about friendships.
Likely too weird to be a major hit, though it’ll no doubt go down well with the Anchorman crowd, Burt Wonderstone makes good on its top-drawer cast, working from a rat-a-rat script that fires out so many gags you’ll quickly end up forgetting any that don’t hit the mark. This amiable oddball comedy should push things further, but it nevertheless earns a steady stream of laughs.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is in cinemas this Friday.
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