RB score: 8/10
Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, are lifelong best friends who headline their own magic show at Bally’s Las Vegas. We first meet them as lonely, bullied middle school students. They become friends after Burt receives a magic kit as a birthday present from his mom, who works around the clock as a single parent to support her son. Burt and Anton become bonded as amateur magicians, and soon discover that their ability to do magic tricks buys them social acceptance at school. Years later, they have been able to parlay their hobby into a lucrative career. They’re wowing audiences in Las Vegas, they’re living the high life. What can possibly go wrong?
A few things, as it turns out. Complacency sets in. While Anton retains a sense of humbleness and appreciation for what they have, Burt eventually starts to believe in his own hype, becoming an arrogant, self-important womanizer. The act relies on having an attractive female assistant, and the current assistant, Nicole, becomes exasperated with the backstage animosity and quits. Apparently, this was getting to be a pattern. Anton reminds Burt that this was the second Nicole to quit in the last month alone. Unfazed, Burt presses one of the technical staffers into service as their newest “Nicole” – a smart young woman named Jane, played by Olivia Wilde. Jane finds herself squeezed into the previous Nicole’s tight stage leotard and blonde wig, as she fairly ad-libs through a performance and snubs Burt’s advances.
However, adding Jane to the act doesn’t address the other problems between Burt and Anton, or the increasing staleness of their routine. Soon, ticket sales start to lag. We see many empty seats in the once-packed auditorium, and the audience members are mostly elderly. Burt and Anton are called into the office of Bally’s owner Doug Munny, played by the late James Gandolfini, in true Vegas-mobster style. Munny tells the duo that they have to update their act if they expect to stay employed. He wants them to bring in a younger demographic. Do we expect Money… er, I mean, Munny…to be anything other than a mercenary? They weren’t terribly subtle with the character’s last name.
At the same time, street performer Steve Gray, played by Jim Carrey, is making a splash with his cable show and large internet following. Burt and Anton scoff at first, but their boss, who only sees dollar signs, is impressed. Gray’s act primarily consists of self-mutilation in various forms, and audiences love it. People cry, even vomit, but they always applaud.
Little bit of a jab here at reality-show brand of entertainment and the audiences who love them. The technique – the prompting of audience self-reflection – works in the sense of inviting that self-check, and it’s uncontroversial. Those who most need that self check will not perform one. When taken to the extreme as it was in “The Big Short” (another Carell vehicle) it is downright alienating. Here, it’s one of many understated devices that ride underneath the film’s main themes. I like it as a film device, I have no faith in it as a means to affect human beliefs and behaviors. There I think you need facts. Education.
As Steve Gray enjoys more success, Burt is forced to vacate his posh Bally’s suite, and Anton, who was badly injured in a stunt where he and Burt were trying desperately to compete with Gray, has taken up philanthropic efforts, distributing free magic kits to starving children in Cambodia. Burt had first gone to Jane’s apartment looking for a place to stay for a while, but he behaved so obnoxiously that Jane threw him out, and he moved into a seedy off strip motel. Comedian Brad Garrett turns up in a small role as Burt’s lecturing accountant, who of course, Burt never listened to, with the result that Burt’s now got nothing. No savings.
Burt finds work entertaining at a senior citizens’ living facility, where evidently, many of the old time Vegas entertainers live out their retirements. There, Burt becomes acquainted with his childhood idol, magician Rance Holloway, played by Alan Arkin, who helps Burt regain a semblance of humility and rekindles a sense of connection he used to feel for both his audiences and his craft. Jane turns up at the retirement home to visit her grandmother, and Burt discovers to his chagrin, that she has gone to work for Steve.
Eventually, Anton returns from overseas, Jane tires of Gray’s extremism and the three reconnect and decide to work together. At this point, I suppose the movie could have simply wound up being the contrived and predictable vehicle some critics complained about. But damn it, in order to say that, you have to ignore what actually happens! And even though spoilers abound, I don’t give them as a policy. Suffice to say that this is one of those endings where I have to remind myself to close my jaw, several times over.
There are two things that I think really alienated the critic ranks. One, a common complaint was predictability. Critics thought it all too predictable. In a sense, I see what they’re getting at; if the viewer focuses on the top notes – basically, the friendship, the love interest, the treatment of elderly by society – the story elements are not terribly original and in that sense, predictable. But this movie uses those top notes almost as a smokescreen – much like the magicians do to the magic show audience at the end. The layers underneath the basic storyline contain numerous blink-and-you-ll-miss-it elements that question everything depicted in the movie. Why did Burt’s mom work on her son’s birthday, leaving him home alone and loney, with a boxed birthday cake? Not, as one critic said, because Burt was neglected. His mom was a single working parent and was forced to work a double shift that day – that’s an indirect slam at American corporate culture. Blink and you’ll miss it. When Anton decides to do something redeeming (reminding the audience of the normal, human side of these characters) he takes magic kits to impoverished children who need food and clean drinking water. It’s a reminder that magic is all that Anton really knows anything about, but also a satirical look at misguided philanthropy. There is a quick cut to a girl biting the corner of one of the kits – blink and you’ll miss it.
The second thing I think really riled critics was the ending. It is a disturbing ending, and if you just laugh at the comedy, you’re not alone, several writers did. But this is not a funny ending, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat 70s disco-era song, Pilot’s “Magic”, played as the lead characters, who, God help us, we THOUGHT we understood – are doing nameless things to the audience while the happy music plays on – is one of the most brilliant film devices I’ve ever seen. I didn’t say I LIKED it, I’m just impressed as all get out by the creativity that was used. If you try to reconcile this movie’s ending with what were supposed to be the “predictable” elements; the trio finding success again, the triumphant return to the stage – well, that bit is the only predictable aspect, and it’s secondary to the jaw dropping conclusion. It is certainly not predictable that they’d do what they did, and it’s so jarring that it’s frankly easier to just conclude that the writers did a bad job, that it’s all out of character and a major flaw.
The thing is, it isn’t out of character. What do any of us know about performers and what drives them, or what they think of the audiences or of mass intellect… or what people are willing to do for money and fame? Even more subtle than that, the viewer might recall that not only Anton and Burt were bulled as schoolchildren, but so was Jane! Are the abused predisposed to grow up into something less than human? I sure hope not, but again, blink and you’ll miss it! The final sequence is really brilliantly done, and on top of that, it actually builds as the soundtrack plays. I’ve replayed the Youtube clip over and over.
See it, you won’t be bored, that’s for sure.
8/10, the 2 points aren’t deducted out of agreement with the critics, but I do think the writing could have been nuanced a bit more in the direction of not giving the critics easy pickings to complain about.