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Movie Blog: ‘Stoker’ Magic Vs. ‘Burt Wonderstone’s Old Tricks

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Eric Henderson Eric Henderson
Eric Henderson joined the WCCO.COM web team in June 2006 and currently...
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The two funniest scenes in all of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone are also, probably not coincidentally, the ones that most obviously wouldn’t really work if the movie had any particular viewpoint. Or if it ever really bothered to take a stance with regard to the value of old school showmanship vs. new school sen-slay-sionalism.

As a pint-sized grade school dork, Burt Wonderstone used to tell the rabbit in his hat “it gets better.” After teaching Anton Marvelton, one of the only classmates nerdier than himself, how to mimic the tricks showcased in veteran illusionist Rance Holloway’s “do it yourself” VHS, the two (now played by Steves Carell and Buscemi) embark on a long career as tacky Vegas prestidigitators, only their routine has become rote and the crowds are abandoning them in favor of the stunts staged by Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a ropey, razor-spitting cross between David Blaine and Charlie Manson.

When a misguided stunt leaves Burt and Anton’s friendship (and a few bones) in pieces, Burt gets kicked out of his cushy digs and finds himself performing his joyless routine for mirthless passersby.

The cliché second act would find Burt reasserting his humanity and rejecting the downright pathological Steve Gray’s bloody pranks, thereby validating the more outmoded but far less craven form of entertainment.

And, to a certain extent, that’s what Burt Wonderstone does, except Carell refuses to submit his character to easy sympathy. He remains a pretty sizeable jerk throughout the film, just not quite as big a jerk as Carrey’s manic freak.

That renders the entire movie oddly nihilistic, and turns the scene that might have otherwise read as Burt’s big atonement into a hysterically grim display of forced catharsis, as Burt and Anton sit down for a reunion lunch and Burt launches into a flamboyant display of forced waterworks. Here is a man who literally doesn’t know how to cry, because he doesn’t believe in anything enough to draw upon the emotional reserves. It’s a brief and showy moment, but one that feels like something out of a particularly broad Todd Solondz setpiece, not from a warm-up to the Anchorman sequel.

And though the movie doesn’t ever resolve its inner conflict between top hatted vs. tatted magic, it does wind up like any magician would, with its best trick. If you ever thought there was a trick too good to be true, Burt Wonderstone‘s logistically ridiculous coda agrees with you.

——-

There’s some dark sorcery in play throughout Stoker, a confidently inventive new horror movie that represents South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) first foray into English-language filmmaking.

Written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller as a thriller that cross-breeds Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt with elements from Lolita (by way of The Bad Seed), Stoker is perhaps a little too stridently arty and fascinated by its own effects and attention to detail to ever register as legitimately scary. What it is, and in spades, is unsettling, beautiful and icky.

Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a very Wednesday Addams young adult whose father dies under mysterious circumstances, though none as strange as the swiftness with which the heretofore unknown Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) integrates himself into the home of India and her newly widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).

Park brings to Miller’s script, which is positively stuffed with elements of disturbing familiarity, a sense of cosmic imbalance. Every extreme close-up, every intrusive element in the sound’s busy sound design registers as another piece removed from India’s already precarious psychological Jenga tower.

I’ve seen a few complaints from other critics that it’s all just sound and fury, signifying nothing. I can’t necessarily disagree with them too vehemently, because it does evaporate after watching it in ways that the truly disturbing horror domestic horror movies (i.e. Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood) never do. But if Burt Wonderstone insists it’s all about making the audience think they’re seeing something brand new and for the very first time, Park’s overachieving effects throughout make Stoker seem like a fine piece of macabre magic indeed.

 

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