There is nothing I find funnier than watching someone who thinks they’re great doing something really badly. The more delusional they are the better. David Brent dancing in The Office, Basil Fawlty trying to impress posh hotel guests, Del Boy telling Trigger to “Play it nice and cool son” before falling through a pub bar.
From ancient Greece to Shakespeare to Laurel and Hardy to Alan Partridge, lots of great comic characters – many from British TV – rely upon the combined personality traits of arrogance and stupidity. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a Hollywood film about rival magicians, is the latest. It’s a light and playful satire with lots of nostalgia for the 1980s – a decade that was full of self-obsessed, stupid people (not all of them this loveable and funny).
Steve Carell’s Burt Wonderstone is a self-important old-school magician stuck in the era of gold catsuits and strings of ‘lovely assistants’. Fighting him for a slot performing to tourists in a swankpots Vegas hotel is Jim Carrey’s ‘Brain Rapist,’ Steve Gray. Rather than dazzling crowds with white rabbits and hats, he prefers to stick a knife in his face and pull out dollar bills from under his flesh. David Blaine, eat your heart out (no, not literally…).
It’s unusual to have lots of these larger-than-life buffoon-like characters in one piece. Normally there’s only enough space for one. But here, they’re everywhere. Even Steve Buscemi’s initially mild-mannered Anton Marvelton – the other half of Burt’s doomed double act – morphs into a hapless clown, stumbling around Cambodia bringing magic to the poor.
The only person who doesn’t get to behave like a clueless megalomaniac at some point is assistant-turned-magician Jane, played by Olivia Wilde. She is pretty much the sole serious character in the piece – the familiar straight woman trying to rein in the behaviour of ridiculous, maverick men. She gets to do a few magic tricks, but she certainly doesn’t get to be funny – just snog Burt at the end when she realises he isn’t the arrogant loser he appears, but an ideal boyfriend. Wasn’t he being a sexist cad two minutes ago? “That was another era!” he quips. That’s the kind of irreverent romp this is.
Gregarious, hilarious know-it-alls in comedy are often men. And comedians often parody magicians – whether it’s Monty Python, Tommy Cooper or stand-ups like Jason Byrne. David Mitchell and Robert Webb played a mismatched duo similar to Burt and Anton in the imaginatively named British film, Magicians. Only here, both of them ended up having unlikely relationships with their female assistants.
While The Incredible Burt Wonderstone won’t change your life or show women being loud and defiantly outlandish (you need Absolutely Fabulous for that), it has a good heart and it will make you laugh. Like a proper 80s film, it even has an uplifting message about the true value of friendship and just how magical life can be. You half expect things to end with a freeze frame of everyone laughing to camera. A pompous comedy character’s spirit can, after all, never be permanently crushed. Maybe that’s why we like them so much.
Tagged: Absolutely Fabulous, Alan Partridge, Basil Fawlty, David Blaine, David Brent, David Mitchell, Del Boy, Jason Byrne, Jim Carey, Laurel and Hardy, Magicians, Monty Python, Olivia Wilde, Robert Webb, Shakespeare, Steve Buscemi, Steve Carell, The Office, Tommy Cooper