Film release schedules are awfully predictable. In summer, brainless blockbusters boasting superheroes, explosions, aliens, and other pyrotechnics hit the big screen. Between Halloween and Christmas Day, studios pull out their big guns to vie for both awards at the Golden Globes and the Oscars and ticket sales during the holidays. During January and February, cinematic duds get to shine—gratuitously violent and uneven films, low-budget horror movies and bad romances.
But March and April are the awkward months, standing between the junk and the dog day fare. And the "magical" comedy The Incredible World of Burt Wonderstone and the 3-D animated adventure The Croods are good examples of what Hollywood gives us this time of year: films that are too polished for January or February, too humdrum for the summer, and too hackneyed for awards season.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the story of two partner magicians, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), whose careers and life-long friendship end when edgy street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and his cable TV program "Brain Raped" hit the scene. But the film revels in predictability and never achieves the comedy it should, given its hilarious cast and promising premise. The viewer might suspect the folks at Warner Bros. planned to put out in the summer, thinking it would sell like a Will Ferrell comedies.
Despite its disappointingly literal setup—the straightforward humor, the trite romance between Wonderstone and his assistant (Olivia Wilde)—the film's few subtleties work. In a shot that highlights the new casino of Doug Munny (Marvelton and Wonderstone's billionaire boss, played by an on-point James Gandolfini), the camera pans over the fancy building and the casino's signage appears, boasting the name "Doug Casino" beside an image of Doug dancing. It's a quick, understated moment that pokes fun at the megalomania of casino moguls.
Wonderstone also gives Jim Carrey an opportunity to revive his comedy career. As the ridiculous, over-the-top, Criss Angel-esque Steve Gray, Carrey outshines both Carell and Buscemi. He resurrects his outlandish 1990s self, particularly the freakish facial expressions for which he became labeled "the man of a thousand faces."
Carrey's bizarre stunts (that Carrell's Wonderstone claims aren't magic) are most hilarious of all: he cuts his face open with a knife and pulls out a card; he sleeps overnight on hot coals. Obviously spoofing the popular street magic of today, made famous by Angel and David Blaine, these stunts are the film at it its smartest, but they narrowly miss reaching into the wits of satire to provide a commentary on state of the industry.
Yet it would be a reach to call the film satirical. Wonderstone's cleverness is secondary, if not tertiary, to Wonderstone himself. His story is trite—guy gains success, guy becomes proud and changes, guy loses success, guy finds redemption, guy regains success, all slathered over a sappy subplot involving guy and girl. But the problem isn't necessarily the film's formulaic nature as much its failure to do its formula right. The plot coasts through the motions, refusing to earn its points, particularly Wonderstone's abrupt transformation from jerk to hero, catapulted by work at a nursing home and a friendship with his inspiration, former magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).
Carell is not bad, but is mostly uninteresting as Wonderstone. He takes his Michael Scott Office persona and moderately (very moderately, in fact) adapts it for the big screen. Yet perhaps his character never finds any life because it never finds a foil in Buscemi's Marvelton, Wonderstone's alleged best friend. Buscemi doesn't want to be in this movie, and his lackluster performance eliminates any chance of chemistry with Carell, making for the dullest of centerpieces. This misstep sinks the whole ship, since the movie not only hinges on their friendship for comedy, but also for the story's climax.
The latest from Dreamworks, Pixar's lesser competitor, The Croods comes to the screen in better shape than Wonderstone—the humor, the score, the images—and, as a whole, works well. But it wants for emotional and intellectual depth—and this too is troubling.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps), the simple story centers on a family of cavemen who find themselves out of their cave and on a journey toward safety while the world as they know it comes to an end. It also centers on a romance between Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), the teenage daughter, and Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), a smart young man who helps the Croods find their way.
Sanders and De Micco care less about the actual narrative and themes of love, family, and adaptation, and more about keeping us engaged. This approach emerges in the opening sequence, an action-packed succession that introduces the Crood family by looking at each member's role in the hunt for food, showcasing the film's colorful imagery, flashy 3-D effects, and silly sense of humor—elements realized in the landscapes and the vast array of animals living in the pre-historic world. This impressive sequence sets the standard for the rest of The Croods—in its ability to amuse, thanks especially to the special effects and voice work from Stone and Reynolds, as well as Nicholas Cage and Catherine Keener, who play the dad and mom, respectively.
But it also hints at the film's problem: It can't transcend its own gimmicks.
The Croods stays so busy trying to look good and move fast that it fails to do anything else. While Pixar continues to produce works that provoke our emotions and play with our heartstrings, in The Croods, Dreamworks never even tries—a breakdown that makes it cold and inhuman, odd for a movie directed at children and families.
The Croods also leaves no room for thinking or reflection—not that a movie like this needs to be deeply philosophical, but as classic children's books often show, there can and should be some meat on the bones. Children's stories work best when there is a reward—moral, social, or otherwise—buried at the base of the story, some sort of spiritual or intellectual payoff. But here, there isn't.
It might be easy to overlook or excuse this misstep, because the film is for children, and so it's designed for parents who just need something to hold their kids' attention for a few hours. But this raises a greater concern: that the film caters to us, refusing to make us think and even feel, making no effort to illuminate or reflect on human experience, makes it all the more problematic and flawed—almost like a bombastic summer flick. Because of its constant busyness, The Croods feels like noise.
Then again, maybe it's best that The Croods doesn't slow down. If there's a "moral" to this story, it's that lawlessness equals freedom, and that freedom equals happiness. Eep finally finds meaning when she leaves her cave and her father's rules for a vibrant world of newness and opportunity. But along with just about everything else, this "message" gets lost in the cacophony of The Croods.
Neither Wonderstone nor The Croods is an unmitigated disaster, the typical stuff of January and February, but neither really stands out. It's unfortunate that the film industry has become so predictable, making decisions about release dates based merely on the market and bottom line, rather than on the desire to actually please, inspire, and enlighten moviegoers.
In 1980, legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote an article in The New Yorker titled "Why Are Movies So Bad?" (today it might read, "Why Are Movies So Bad Six Months Out of the Year?"). Kael blames the problem on industry moguls who no longer care about movies—and perhaps don't even watch movies—and only care about the business. But she also puts the blame back on us, the audience, reminding us we're the culprit, too, for continuing to buy tickets and hand over our money: "One big reason is that rotten pictures are making money—not necessarily wild amounts (though a few are), but sizable amounts. So if studio heads want nothing more than to make money and grab power, there is no reason for them to make better ones." It's a reminder that's as pertinent today as ever: what we allow to entertain us actually matters.
The Family Corner
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. Before and after he changes, Wonderstone is a bit of a pervert, harassing and sleeping around with women. In one silly sex scene, he and his partner proceed to do magic tricks during the act, one involving condoms. Gray performs several dangerous stunts, including a scene where he cuts his face open. The magicians use a drug as part of their act, and there is mild profanity throughout the film. The Croods is rated PG for some scary action. The action-packed film includes a number of sequences in which the Crood family is put in danger, with their lives on the line, as they defend themselves from fierce animals. A character uses the word "suck" in one scene.
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