March 15, 2013 in Features

‘Extreme’ makeover

‘Burt Wonderstone’ a study in audience demand
John Anderson McClatchy-Tribune
Faces of the fantastical in magic movies

Not every movie about “magic” turns out to be “magical,” and not all the movies that exist in the realm of the wondrous have anything to do with the world of “Burt Wonderstone” – sleight-of-hand, card tricks, illusion, disappearing tigers, the stuff of both Las Vegas and carny shows. The following films (“Magic Mike” not included) aren’t supernatural. Quite the opposite. At their best, they put a human face on the fantastical.

HOUDINI (1953) – There’s no shortage of astounding fiction in this classical Hollywood treatment of the legendary Harry Houdini, played by heartthrob Tony Curtis (with real-life wife Janet Leigh playing Mrs. Houdini). Highly entertaining, sentimental and melodramatic, this film by veteran director George Marshall is still the best of the Houdini bunch – which includes the TV movie “The Great Houdini” (1976), starring Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers, and its small-screen cousin, “Houdini” (1998), with Johnathon Schaech.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – This underappreciated gem from Christopher (“Dark Knight”) Nolan stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians in 19th century London, where their rivalry attains lethal proportions. Much of the fascination of the film lies in the way it pulls away the curtain on the mechanics of magic.

MAKE BELIEVE (2011) – Olivia Wilde says she based her “Burt Wonderstone” character on Krystyn Lambert, one of the stars of this highly entertaining and warmly engaging documentary by J. Clay Tweet. As six young competitors vie for magic’s Teen World Championship, we share their journeys, dreams and routines – which include some extraordinary techniques but ultimately lead to the conclusion that character has far more to do with success in magic than the ability to palm a card.

THE ILLUSIONIST (2006) – A Romeo-and-Juliet story, essentially, that benefited from the technical advice of the great Ricky Jay and Michael Weber. Film stars Edward Norton, features Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti and revels in the lushly decadent surroundings of 19th century Vienna.

MAGIC (1978) – Anthony Hopkins had not yet attained Olympian status when he played the unfortunately named Corky Withers, magician-turned- ventriloquist, who is thwarted by his possessed dummy, “Fats,” an evil appliance who gets in the way of Corky’s romance with Ann-Margret. A wood chipper would have come in handy.

Armed with his Mattel Magic Kit (“I loved it so much”), the very young Steve Carell would put on shows for other kids in his Acton, Mass., neighborhood. But he admits he wasn’t a very good magician. “As soon as the show was over,” he said, “I would tell everyone how all the tricks worked.”

That’s something he certainly can’t do with “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which opens Friday and stars Carell, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde in a comedy about egos, illusions and plunging necklines (on Carell). In an effort to avoid too much computer enhancement, the movie used a lot of real tricks that came courtesy of its magic adviser, David Copperfield. But it meant the actors had to sign a confidentiality agreement. “Honestly, that was the coolest part,” Carell said. “You really felt you were part of that world.”

Worlds collide in “Burt Wonderstone,” which is set in Las Vegas – a place where “you go big or go home,” as Wilde put it, and which she said seemed “ripe” for the kind of parody they were out to do.

“And the more I learned more about Vegas magicians, the more I said, yeah, this place is right for comedy.

“And the idea of competition between magicians? They really do dislike each other.”

They certainly do in “Burt Wonderstone.” Burt (Carell) and his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), have been doing turn-away business on the Vegas Strip for years (any resemblance to Siegfried and Roy is purely intentional). But their act is getting old, the seats emptier and the relationship so acrimonious they keep losing assistants and have to draft a techie named Jane (Wilde) as a last-second substitute.

Despite Jane’s contributions, the act is in free-fall, and the team’s boss, hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), looks to replace them with someone edgier – someone like Steve Gray (Carrey), a street “magician” and Internet sensation whose act is more about body-modification and pain than the kind of grand illusion in which Burt and Anton have specialized ever since they were boyhood friends.

While the idea of “extreme” magic reflects something going on in the culture at large, it wasn’t something the filmmakers wanted “to hit with a sledgehammer,” Carell said. But he hoped it wouldn’t be lost on anyone, either.

“It’s the idea that something that is classic and perhaps a bit well-worn can casually be replaced by something that might not be considered art, but is new and shocking,” he said. “I think that not only happens in magic but in the comedy world as well. I think there are lots of parallels, especially in television, in terms of what people are watching at this point. People are getting so much info on a daily basis, you need to do something ridiculous just to garner any attention.”

In one scene, Carrey – looking remarkably buff, with a Mephistophelean beard and long, flowing locks – does a hidden-card trick that involves pulling the card out of a slice in his cheek. He also attempts to set the world record for staring, while having pepper spray shot into his eyes.

“It’s an observation about what people want to watch, and what audiences seem to be demanding,” Wilde said. “People want to be pushed to the brink, to see what they’ve never seen. It’s interesting because it’s happening in sports and in film as well – horror, comedy. People want to be pushed to the edge. I wonder if that’s a reaction to technology and what’s available at our fingertips, or the demands made on entertainment that you pay for, because free content is so plentiful.

“If our film is a love letter to anything, it’s to a classic style of entertainment.”

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