Another opening-night gala screening, another crapshoot. Two years ago, South by Southwest gave the red-carpet treatment of Duncan Jones’s entertaining time-travel thriller Source Code, but last year Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s irritatingly snarky horror-genre deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods got the top honor, and now this year we have The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, which, in spite of a nasty concluding punchline, can’t even claim the kind of cleverly subversive comic gusto The Cabin in the Woods has in abundance—for better and for worse.
The plot of Don Scardino’s film sounds like a kind of comic riff on The Prestige: competing magicians, the titular old-fashioned Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) versus the Criss Angel/David Blaine-like freak Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), fighting for not only audience attention, but also the honor of achieving increasingly over-the-top illusions. But The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has other thematic concerns on its mind than simply its central tale of dueling egos. Much of the comedy comes out of not only Burt’s unwillingness to adapt his retro brand of magic to satisfy contemporary mores (represented by Gray’s brand of daredevil magic, featured on a show he calls Brain Rapist), but his pride-fueled inability to even accept the direness of his own increasingly pathetic personal situation. (When he finishes a meal at the apartment of his assistant Jane, played by Olivia Wilde, he takes the plates and leaves them outside, as if he was still in a hotel with room service.) Ultimately, though, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone becomes a blandly sentimental paean to the “purer” form of magic as practiced by Burt and his assistant, Anton (Steve Buscemi), by comparison to Gray’s coarse freak-show displays; “good” and “evil” eventually duke it out for a prime entertainer spot at oh-so-subtly-named Doug Munny’s (James Gandolfini) new hotel…and—spoiler alert—good wins out, naturally.
Or is the film quite as cut and dry as that? The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is filled with all sorts of misanthropic grace notes that suggest equal-opportunity contempt toward just about everyone involved. The film not only takes the piss out of the monstrous egos of the two clashing magicians, but also Doug’s power-hungry ruthlessness (he cares so much about his hotel chain he can’t even remember how old his son is, to the point of even asking him his age at his own birthday party) and Anton’s complete obliviousness toward the plight of third-world inhabitants (his idea of helping out the poor is to provide them magic kits rather than food and clothing), among other things. But the film saves its most subversive joke for its final sequence, which reveals the startlingly insensitive methods by which Burt, Anton, and Jane pull off the super-ambitious magic trick that gets them the gig at Doug’s new casino (let’s just say it involves mass amounts of an exotic drug). If the rest of the film had been as consistent in its anti-humanist comedy, the film might have added up to something of a black-comic classic. As it stands, though, the terminally mild The Incredible Burt Wonderstone never commits to its mean-spirited side enough to add up to more than the sum of its divided intentions.
What happened to S-VHS, the original title of V/H/S/2? The name change only helps to underscore the general lack of imagination on display this time around. At least the first installment had that monster that materialized only through video noise, among other bits of playfulness surrounding its lo-fi, found-footage concept. Instead of witty concoctions like that, however, we’re treated instead mostly to cheap jump scares revolving around the usual yawn-inducing diet of zombies, monsters, and aliens. Worse, few of the filmmakers—among them Adam Wingard (of A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next), Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project, Lovely Molly), and Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun)—seem to have put much effort into coming up with especially interesting formal approaches to the increasingly monotonous point-of-view shots that characterize movies like this.
Only one segment comes close to offering genuine relief from the monotony. With the help of co-director Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Evans, in a segment entitled “Safe Haven,” marries a reasonably fresh premise—the horrors a documentary film crew witness and experience as they investigate a suspected cult leader at his compound—with some fairly imaginative uses of the first-person-shooter aesthetic. Plus, Evans shows an ability to build suspense and intrigue in ways that weren’t immediately evident in his last film, the martial-arts extravaganza The Raid: Redemption. “Safe Haven” climaxes in an extended, no-holds-barred horror sequence—this one involving mass suicides and Alien-style live births—that marks this as the same meathead filmmaker behind The Raid: Redemption’s nonstop riot of action, but Evans has by now so skillfully built us up to this climactic blow-out that the massacre he furiously unleashes is truly grand and glorious to behold. If only the rest of V/H/S/2 had managed to work up nearly the same level of intensity, for all the (video and audio) noise.
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.