Burt Wonderstone: From Wonder-Empty to Wonder-Full

Review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Directed by Don Scardino

Yet this I hold against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. ~ Revelation 2:4

Albert Weinzelstein and his friend Anthony—social outcasts and frequent targets for bullying—wanted nothing more than to explore the wonderful world of magic; a world personified by Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), a stage magician who looks like a live-action Count von Count … if he were a lounge singer. The boys assiduously study and perfect every trick in the Rance Holloway magic kit and nurture hopes of one day winning over the world with their magical genius.

Fast forward 30 years, and Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are established headliners at the Bally Casino in Las Vegas. They made it. All their magical dreams have come true, and it is the power of friendship—along with their delight in magic—that made it all possible. But all is not well with Burt and Anton. Well, Burt, specifically. He’s tired of the same schtick night after night, tired of Anton, tired of magic. The only silver lining in this ennui-filled existence is the never-ending parade of attractive ‘magician’s assistants’ (all of whom, at least in Burt’s mind, are named ‘Nicole’) and fangirls that he beds.  When his latest human accessory stalks off in a huff, he quickly drafts the previously behind-the-scenes Jane (Olivia Wilde) to take her place. But Jane—though more than lovely enough to Vanna White it up on stage—is also more than capable of speaking her mind, and sends Burt packing when he tries to put the moves on her.

This is but the first of many setbacks for Burt. The newest act in town—extreme ‘magician’ Criss Angel Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), star of the hit TV show Mindfreak Brain Rapist—is stealing his audience. “All he does is mumble and cut himself,” Burt protests. “My niece does that!” Indeed, Gray is uninterested in traditional ‘magic’; he prefers to test the limits of the human body (and, along the way, test the limits of sheer jerkitude as well). He seeks not to delight, but to horrify—along the way, he also manages to make the monumentally self-absorbed Burt seem like Albert Schweitzer.

Burt and Anton’s attempt to mimic Gray’s ‘new’ style goes horribly awry, and the pair part ways, never again to meet (or so they think). Burt quickly discovers that, like Kate Moseley, he doesn’t know how to be a solo act. Before he knows it, he’s out of a job, out of an apartment, and out on his ear. After an unsuccessful attempt to trespass on the hospitality of Nicole Jane (during which encounter she reveals her own dreams of magicianry), Burt finds himself scrounging for work. During a rather catastrophic gig at a nearby nursing home, Burt comes across a familiar face: the one and only Rance Holloway. Together with Rance and Jane (and eventually [SPOILER] Anton), Burt tries to put his life back together and remember why he got into this business in the first place.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I tend not to be a big fan of outright comedies—in this day and age, they tend to be too, erm, broad for my taste. Not that I’m a snob, mind you; I love slapstick as much as (and very likely more than) the next guy. But comedies today seem to simultaneously try too hard and not hard enough. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is occasionally guilty of both errors, but by and large, it manages to be genuinely funny. This is mostly due to the stellar cast.  Audiences have loved to hate Jim Carrey since his brilliant turn as Count Olaf in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and his Steve Gray is positively loathsome in the best possible way. While Steve Carell’s transformation from jerk to gentleman is rather hurried, he plays both temperaments well. Steve Buscemi is always a delight, and all the more so since it’s been a few years since I’ve seen him on the big screen. Olivia Wilde, though underutilized, is spunky and beautiful, and Alan Arkin essentially plays the same role he always plays (see also Christopher Walken), but he does it so well that we don’t really mind. James Gandolfini also earns his keep as Doug Munny, owner of Bally’s Casino. The humor is occasionally off-color, but the movie manages to steer clear of most of the offensively crude stuff.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone wants to be a movie about friendship, but it isn’t. Yes, Burt and Anton part ways, and yes, their reunion is touching, but during their separation, Burt doesn’t seem to miss Anton in the slightest. Rather, Burt’s journey, such as it is, is one of rediscovery. He has lost his first love—magic, and the sense of awe and wonder and delight that it brings.  What was once a thing of joy and excitement has become rote. In his quest to enjoy all the things that magic brought him—money, fame, sex—he has forgotten the magic itself.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of Christ’s admonition of the church at Ephesus. After all, anyone who’s been a Christian for more than a few years knows that, as with most life experience, the buzz tends to fade. We start off so full of wonder and delight—the God of the universe loves me and sent His Son to die in my place for my sins! Hallelujah! What a Savior!

But as the years pass, so too does our irrepressible joy in the Gospel. We become so focused on the blessings we have received that we forget the One from whose hand we have received them. Our faith can seem, well, ‘old hat.’ Gradually, the wondrous things God in Christ has done—and continues to do—in us and for us begin to seem slightly less wondrous. Like Burt, we forget why we do what we do.

When that happens, we may, like Burt, be tempted to look for the ‘next thing’—the exciting new theological idea, the latest hip religious trend. But the solution to losing our first love isn’t to look forward to something new and different; rather, we look back to what drew us in the first place. And in our case, we look back to a bloodstained cross on a hill. Like Burt, we must remember. Throughout the Old Testament, when Israel (repeatedly) forgets their God, He exhorts them to remember what He has done for them. He brought them out of Egypt. He delivered Canaan into their hands. He routed their enemies. These reminders are designed to rekindle the flame of devotion in their adulterous hearts. We on this side of the cross have so much more to look back on, for our God has not just blessed us with temporal assistance; He has secured our eternal joy. When we’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, the solution lies in remembering—dwelling on, marinating in—the Gospel.

Of course, like Burt, we may find that our remembering is significantly aided by the testimony of others—others who are now where we once were, in whose lives we see the wonder and awe and overwhelming gratitude we once felt. In the eyes of the children he entertains, Burt sees the delight that first drew him to magic. He sees Jane, eager to share that delight with others, even as he himself once was. He sees Rance, whose joy in magic is that much greater for having been temporarily lost along the way.

Then, too, it is likely no coincidence that his rediscovered love of magic is preceded by the loss of all the bells and whistles that so absorbed and distracted him. As Christians, we know well the Lord’s tendency to strip away our comforts—our idols—so that we may re-focus our attention on Him and remember our first love.

Granted, the analogy is far from perfect: Our faith does not depend on our feelings—Christ’s blood atones for our sins even when the Gospel doesn’t thrill us. Indeed, it atones for the very sin of undervaluing His death and resurrection, of our apathetic response to His lavish grace. And our first love isn’t an impersonal idea, like magic or faith. Our faith matters not because it is faith, but because it is faith in a Person. Faith in Christ. We do not have extol the virtues of faith for its own sake. We proclaim the eternal and all-surpassing gift of faith in Christ and His blood shed for us.  And that is wonder-full news indeed.


Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.