SXSW 2013: ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ and the magic of the high concept comedy

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The Incredible Burt WonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Directed by Don Scardino
Written by Chad Klutgen (Story), Tyler Mitchell (Story), Jonathan Goldstein (Screenplay), John Francis Daley (Screenplay)
US, 2013

The film opens with the prototypical childhood scene. A young boy, bullied and an outcast, finds solace in his home magic kit. Flash forward thirty some odd years, and the same boy whose passion and awe has devolved into a stale show, a contrived performer, and a shell of a man.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the typical high concept comedy. The film does not do anything new with the genre. It follows all of the typical high budget comedy tropes. When an edgy street magician in Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) begins to show him up, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) has to deal with losing his show, falling out with his best friend and show partner, Anton (Steve Buscemi), and try to recapture the, if you will, magic that he’s lost through the years. The plot is, as expected, quite straightforward.

The character development is the same. Carell begins as an unlikeable, pampered man child and ends up finding some heart. Olivia Wilde’s role as magician’s assistant, Jane, is a surprising none role much as typical magician’s assistants would. Steve Buscemi, in a sort of role reversal with Carell, here plays the straight man. Alan Arkin’s role as jaded veteran magician, however, steals the show, with his acidic humor and surprising heart.

The Incredible Burt WonderstoneSXSW

However, this film is, put simply, hilarious. Fans of street magic will find Carrey’s amalgam of Criss Angel and David Blaine a force of comedic chaos and full of gross out antics. Even the traditional sequin and velvet adorned performers of Vegas are not safe from the film’s self poking. The final scene is one of the best magician reveals-his-trick bit ever witnessed.

What helps keep this film afloat above other poorer iterations of the high concept comedy genre is also it’s heart. This move has a surprising bit of emotional underpinning to it. The main heart of the movie is the idea of passion and awe. Using magic just as a medium to express the fears of when passion turns into rote mechanisms. Carell’s rediscovery of the awe he once had for magic only as a child speaks to everyone’s doubt and fears of losing what they once loved.

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The spark of this comes from Arkin’s Holloway in which he says, “We might see [the trick] a million times, but for them, it’s the first time.” And in a way, this has to be for the performer as well. Whether a person’s passion is in magic or film or accounting, it can be easy for that fire to be tamed by sheer day in and day out routines. The film is all about carrying that passion and awe for what one loves, and not being caught up with changing for change’s sake. For that, the film imbues much of what SXSW stands for and makes a great choice for Opening Night.

If you’re a fan of high concept comedies, you’ll find this a treat. It has a enough humor and heart to not be just another carbon copy. However, if you never liked these kinds of films, this one will not change your mind.

– David Tran

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