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"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone": Your Magic is Showing 

Wednesday, Mar 13 2013

The degree to which contemporary mainstream comedies adhere to a Joseph Campbell storytelling model is interesting and exasperating — yes, the Hero's Journey is a natural way to tell a story, but individual comedies these days are pounding out the Star Wars narrative tempo with all the redundancy of generic nightclub beats. Sooner or later, a protagonist finds an old, wise teacher figure who restores his sense of childlike wonder (or whatever), and then dies (or whatever). The Incredible Burt Wonderstone amiably imposes onto this familiar template a story of rival Las Vegas magicians, and the film's Yoda is 1960's-era illusionist Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). He's the childhood hero of the performing duo of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). When the two fall out, Burt, now working as a weddings-and-bat-mitzvahs-grade freelancer, finds Holloway consigned to a nursing home for retired Vegas entertainers. Former headliners, Wonderstone and Marvelton have been supplanted by dreadful "street magician" Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), derived from the David Blaine model. Carrey fails, despite affecting a broad caricature, to be even remotely as objectionable or revolting as the actual David Blaine. Which is totally OK — Ben Stiller couldn't quite get there on Arrested Development, either. As Master of Ceremonies Hammer said so long ago, "Can't touch this," where "this" is the somehow heraldic awfulness of David Blaine. In accordance with the sine-wave trajectory of mythic tales, Wonderstone's descent from the heights of a Bally's penthouse to a motel on the strip can only be reversed through a journey of self-discovery that takes him back to the wonder he felt as a child. Etcetera. Interesting fact: Apparently, if you agree to shoot a film in Las Vegas, the Nevada Film Office not only offers tax breaks — they will also blow up a hotel for the cameras!

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Chris Packham


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