Everyone seems to have their own definition of what constitutes a “cult movie”. For my part, I’d define it as a movie in which the main narrative, the overall plot, isn’t very interesting, but there is enough happening on the sidelines that elevates the material to the “infinite re-watch” level. What keeps me going through a cult movie is not anticipating what’s going to happen to the protagonist or waiting for the dramatic tension to be resolved, but rather gleefully enjoying some sort of small character moment, line or situation (or perhaps even a whole scene) that always brings a smile. It’s a bit like how a friend of mine described the appeal of the Grateful Dead — it’s all about the little asides, the intermittent grooves, and not the actual quality of the song. It’s on that basis that I defend the appeal of the 2013 film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a film that ranks high on my list of all-time favourite films for cultish re-watch value.
The problem with cult films is that their appeal isn’t always obvious on the first viewing. Wonderstone, on the face of it, is a middlingly-expensive Hollywood flop, with a formula that should have worked, but didn’t. Steve Carrell stars as an arrogant, out-of-touch Las Vegas magician (the titular character), who has been going through the motions of his elaborate prop-based magic show with his partner “Anton Marvelton” (Steve Buscemi) for too many years. With his Siegfried and Roy outfits and his persistent use of “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band, Wonderstone is an embarrassment to magic, generating absolutely zero “wonder” and instead offering only recycled Las Vegas glitz. Challenged by younger “street magician” Steve Gray (played by Jim Carrey), an obvious parody of magicians such as David Blaine and Criss Angel (Gray’s TV show is called Brain Rapist, for example, a nod to Angel’s Mindfreak) to update their act, the pair heroically botch an attempt at edgier, modern magic and split up. Wonderstone is fired by Casino owner Dough Munny (James Gandolfini) and winds up performing at a nursing home, where he meets his original magic inspiration Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), which sets the stage for the reunion of Wonderstone and Marvelton and the inevitable triumphant comeback. On paper, this should all work. The casting is top-shelf (and they all do what they can with the material), the premise seems rich with laughs and the combination of Steve Carrell going “full magician” (something The Office’s Michael Scott always managed to mine for comedy) and Jim Carrey going way over the top as a Criss Angel impersonator appears to make for a sure-fire hit. But the film’s central story is cliched, the plot creakily staggers through the numbers and it’s never quite as funny as it should be. Losing money on its original release, the film was consigned to the garbage dump of comedy history.
But all that aside, this has to be one of my favourite films, and I’ve seen enough times now to articulate why. The secret might be in what Jay Mohr mentioned on one of his “Mohr Stories” podcasts. Mohr appears in the film in a very small role, as a pathetic small-time magician known as Rick the Implausible, whose claim to fame is the 2:15-2:30 show every Wednesday at the mall. Mohr mentions that he campaigned hard to get that role, and committed to it more than just about any other acting part he’s ever had. He’s very funny, to be sure, improvising awkwardness masterfully, but one has to wonder why this film was so important to him. It was then that I realized that all of the small roles in this film are wonderfully played, with great comedic actors going absolutely for broke. James Gandolfini gets into the act as well, playing Munny (get it?) as a hotel owner who cares about nothing but the bottom line. Appearing in an in-room advertising video, he boasts about how each room has “a hairdryer and an ironing board”, and woodenly reading the line, “If you like steakhouses, you’ll love Bally’s signature steakhouse… Bally’s Steakhouse”. Gandolfini’s subtle pauses, never breaking a fake smile, effortlessly convey both his absolute disinterest in his job, and his awareness of how lame the whole exercise is. (Later, when he hires Wonderstone to play his son’s birthday, he literally has to ask his son how old he is.) Obviously Jim Carrey does his best to steal the show (he has a penchant for doing that), but he’s not as out of control here as he was in Batman Forever, for example, where he pulled every one of his silly faces out, desperately hoping that one of them would be funny. Whenever the film cuts away to his Gray’s latest stunt, the whole affair takes a jump, such as when he tries to see how long he can go without urinating. Carrey’s gifts for physical comedy and improvisation have rarely been better used.
Ironically, Alan Arkin is the restrained performer here, saddled with a character whose sole purpose is to re-introduce Wonderstone to the “power and majesty of magic”. That utterly predictable plotline (Chekov’s proverbial gun is essentially waved in the audience’s face about halfway through the film) serves only as a dull, lifeless spine on which are hung many much funnier scenes. But nobody phones it in – Carrell is as game as he has ever been. Take the scene in which he has to perform for the first time without his partner Marvelton, promising Munny that he will “completely change” the act. Instead, he does literally the exact same act, word-for-word, but without Marvelton, ironic because the act is titled “Burt and Anton: A Magical Friendship”. Carrell’s strangled gasps when his accountant (played by none other than Brad Garrett, again finding all the funny notes he can in a small role) tells him how little money he has are delightful, as we watch an out-of-touch celebrity deal with real life for the first time. It’s moments like that that I look forward to whenever I watch the film, and they come often enough that I’m not tempted to fast forward through the duller, more plot-oriented scenes.
Magicians are very peculiar kinds of celebrities. They have to be comedians, dancers, actors, sometimes even musicians, and top of all of that perform feats of slight of hand and manipulate their audience. Orson Welles himself admired magicians so much that he always wanted to be one himself, and even took to calling himself a magician in his later years. The world of magic is full of hideously rich performers (such as David Copperfield, who has a cameo here) and many more hack pretenders, but they all present themselves as if they’ve already won the great celebrity game. “Every magician is the world’s greatest magician,” Welles once said, and that fact sets them apart from musicians, for example, who appear pathetic when they present themselves as more talented than they really are. With a magician, the audience always seems to want to give them a chance, to believe that they really could be the Greatest. Magicians fool us, with our permission, and we strangely don’t really want to see behind the mask. Burt Wonderstone is a caricature — a cartoon version of a magician — so we don’t connect with him as much as we should, thus robbing this film of one of the keys to effective drama. But he’s a recognizable type, as is Steve Gray. (Sadly, Buscemi barely registers here, except in one scene in which he goes full Bono and pretends to save the world by handing out magic kits to starving Cambodian children.) Magicians and their lives will always be a source of fascination for me, and others, so I think that’s part of what carries me through a viewing of Burt Wonderstone.
I’ll never make the argument that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a great movie, but I’ll watch it much more often than something like Drive or The Dark Knight, no matter how great those films are. That, to me, is the definition of a cult movie. Everyone involved in this film seemed to care a great deal, and while the script (by John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who also wrote Spiderman: Homecoming) lets them down at times, the performances, the improvisations and the little asides add richness and flavour and most importantly, laughs, to a film that too many have written off as a Hollywood dud. Perhaps in a few years, we’ll discover that the film has a large cult following. The only thing I can say for sure is that it already has a cult of one.