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Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:04 am

Wonderstone encourages us to be amazed

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My obsession with film began at an early age, and I got my hands on every book I could find on the subject at the local library. It was my father’s fault that I had gotten hooked on cinema, and while he had no objections to my mania, he warned that if I learned how special effects were done or that certain actors I admired had feet of clay, than some of the magic I found in the movies might disappear.

While I didn’t heed his words, I eventually came to realize what he was talking about. That idea of allowing yourself to be amazed, and the importance of letting a sense of childlike wonderment sweep over you occasionally, is at the core of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. On the surface, the film is a comedy -- and a very good one at times – but beneath the laughs is a pointed indictment of our collective skepticism, bred from a cynicism that’s been nurtured by being taken advantage of too often and our insistence on knowing how everything works in order to defend ourselves.

Steve Carell is the magician of the title, a self-absorbed performer who’s been doing the same act on the Vegas Strip for 10 years with his socially awkward partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The act’s ticket sales are dwindling, primarily because their routine has become a lifeless, rote exercise but also because of competition in the form of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a David Blaine-type charlatan whose shtick consists not so much of magic tricks but of acts self-abuse. When Wonderstone and Marvelton attempt a desperate, misguided stunt of their own and it goes horribly wrong, they go their separate ways, leaving the former broke (his many investments have gone belly up, especially the one involving bottled Mexican water) and on the streets. However, salvation may be around the corner as a wannabe trickster, Jane (Olivia Wilde) encourages him to resurrect his act and veteran magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) agrees to be his mentor.

The film is spot on in its skewering of Blaine and others of his ilk. What with his edgy persona, Carrey is perfectly cast as Gray. The character’s act has more in common with the asinine stunts as seen on Jackass, than magic of any sort. Audiences flock to his street performances to witness carnage not experience wonder as his feats of holding his urine for 12 hours or staring for three days straight aren’t that far removed from Blaine’s acts of being buried alive or frozen in ice for all the public to see.

Carell does a fine job showing us Wonderstone’s transformation from a bouffanted buffoon back to being a true entertainer, one who knows the audience is there to be amazed not treated as suckers. Arkin, of course, delivers the funny as his usual exasperated curmudgeon, while Wilde shows that she’s capable of comedy. She succeeds in shining despite being saddled with an underwritten role. However, if there’s any magic in Wonderstone it’s in its ability to remind us that the purpose of magic is to amaze and prompt us to delve into the seemingly impossible. That we might feel like a kid once more in seeing a watch disappear is just a pleasant side effect.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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