In Hollywood, it has been raining magicians. Last week, in Oz the Great and Powerful—or as I prefer to call it, Disney the Great and Powerful, we saw James Franco rise from his humble station as a sideshow magician and smoke and mirrors to free the Emerald City from female sorcery. And now, in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, we see Steve Carell as a celebrated Las Vegas magician who falls from the glittering heights of phony showbiz, hits rock bottom, and, stripped of illusions, finally rediscovers the true meaning of magic and, uh, life.
Rebooting the American Dream has become as simple as producing a rabbit out of a hat. But like the Franco extravaganza, Wonderstone lacks actual magic; it’s too contrived for that. But it least it has some heart, unlike the Oz prequel, which had all the warmth of the Tin Man on steroids. Wonderstone is an undeniably amiable confection, and watchable, up to a point: Carell’s likeability goes a long way. But this is a classic case of squandered talent. The performances by Carell and his high-octane co-stars—Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey and James Gandolfini—consistently outclass the script, which tries to hoodwink the audience with a some brazen sleight of hand all its own.
Its most outlandish illusion is the miraculous transformation of Carell’s title character, Burt Wonderstone. In the film’s first act, he’s an absolute idiot and a total jerk—a parody of a jaded, ego-mad lothario who lives in a hotel with the world’s largest bed and has his groupies sign a release form before having sex. This spoiled showbiz brat is essentially a grandiose version of Carell’s persona in The Office. Then comes the fall. After he rudely breaks up with his longtime partner (Buscemi), Wonderstone’s audiences do a vanishing act. The former superstar is reduced to doing magic tricks in a supermarket, and a retirement home.
Then, with a hyperbolic story arc that’s considered Standard Human Behavior in Hollywood, abracadabra!—Wonderstone is transformed into a nice, smart, sensitive, loving guy. He’s even rewarded with a gratuitous interlude of romantic comedy, courtesy of Jane (Olivia Wilde), his former assistant and aspiring magician. After enduring endless abuse, she goes from loathing him to finding him irresistible. The movie, meanwhile, which started out as high farce—magic’s answer to Blades of Glory—becomes as soft and cuddly as a rabbit nestled in a top hat.
Corralled around this flimsy feat of conjuring are some deft, crowd-pleasing performances. High-wire comic Jim Carrey is in his element as a rival magician, a self-mutilating megalomaniac who executes daredevil stunts for a reality show sensation called Brain Rape. And it’s a relief to see Gandolfini, cast as a jolly casino mogul, having some fun with a role and for once not playing a gangster, even if he is playing a sleazeball.
In movies, as in magic, misdirection works wonders. Keep your eye on the actors and you can almost forgive the script—a shambling mess created by half a dozen writers and directed by Don Scardino, a 64-year-old TV veteran making his first feature—but not quite. For a comedy, the laughs are too sporadic. And The Incredible Burt Wonderstone simply lacks the conviction to be credible. Alan Arkin, cast in a typical nugget of a role as a legendary old magician, gives a piece of sage advice that the filmmakers, in their eagerness to please, seem to have ignored: when it comes to magic, if you don’t believe it, no one else will.
Here’s a small Canadian film that unfolds as a conjuring trick of a different kind, one that doesn’t work so hard to please the crowd, and has more integrity and style. Written and directed by Winnipeg filmmaker Sean Garrity (Inertia, My Awkward Sexual Adventure)—but set very explicitly in Toronto—Blood Pressure is a compelling psychological thriller about Nicole (Michelle Giroux) a 41-year-old pharmacist and mother of two teenagers, who finds herself being stalked, or courted, by a mysterious stranger. He has been watching her. He knows intimate details of her life. He announces himself via a chain of elegant letters signed “a friend.” Each missive asks Nicole to follow a set of instructions, initiating a sort of serial scavenger hunt. Although it’s unclear whether the mystery man is suitor or predator, he gives her the option of discontinuing the ritual at any time, saying that if given the word, she’ll never hear from him again. But for Nicole, whose life is wanting, that would be the road not taken. She can’t help but be drawn in, until her secret obsession—this non-affair—begins to affect her husband (Judah Katz) and children (Tatania Maslany, Jake Epstein).
Giroux carries the movie with commanding intensity and focus, which (despite the arch conceit of the film) never feels forced. Her face is an agile maze of angles and emotions, shifting between severity, intrigue and fear with flashes of elusive beauty. Her intelligence is palpable, which is vital in a drama like this. And as her daughter, rising star Tatania Maslany (Picture Day) brings her customary complexity and depth to a relatively small part.
Garrity shoots Toronto with an eye for the city’s deadpan personality that rivals, and occasionally surpasses, that of local filmmakers like Egoyan, Cronenberg and McDonald. Maybe it helps to be from Winnipeg. Yet he frames his shots with a rich palette and a precise composition that makes Blood Pressure look more like a high pedigree French film than something out of English Canada.
That said, Blood Pressure has its limits. While the narrative sustains tension with admirable consistency, the script paints itself into a corner from which there is no exit. The mystery man at the end of the yellow brick road is a disappointment, and the story’s prosaic resolution doesn’t live up to its promise. And suspending disbelief becomes a bit of a chore. Even then, the movie’s final scene of emotional resolution, which involves Nicole and her family, and almost makes up for it, and caps one of the year’s most remarkable performances by a Canadian actress.