Real Magic is Lacking in Oz and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
The best thing I can say about Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful is that it’s better than the reviews make it seem—not that these reviews deterred anyone from seeing it. In fact, with $150 million in ticket sales, this Oz has got a leg up on the original Wizard of Oz, which really didn’t become a financially successful, beloved classic until its rerelease—and all the subsequent TV showings. As much as one would like to review a film on its own merits (and I’ll try), many viewers this will bring their own memories and expectations to this version of the Emerald City.
In this lavishly produced (read very expensive) prequel, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a womanizing magician plying his trade in a traveling circus in Kansas. These opening scenes, shot in black and white as a possible homage to the 1939 Wizard, establish Oscar as little more than an insincere huckster with dreams of grandeur and a legacy of disappointed fans and females. A tornado whisks him and his hot-air balloon away to the colorful land of Oz, where he is (mistakenly) assumed to be the land’s savior against the imminent threat of the Wicked Witch. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams play the three witches (what is this…Macbeth!), one of whom is good, one of whom is evil, and one of whom is…why spoil the surprises? Cue the colorful supporting characters, such as the talking monkey (voiced by Zach Braff with a soupcon of Ray Romano), the wise old tinker (Bill Cobbs), and a devoted China girl (yes, she’s made of China from Chinatown) who help the great and powerful Oz fulfill his destiny.
There are a number of things to like, namely the visual appeal of much of the film, and the occasional touches of wit in both the screenplay and the special effects. The witches generally acquit themselves nicely: Rachel Weisz is enjoyably larger than life, while Michelle Williams radiates goodness and good humor, and Mila Kunis does well in the early sections until events conspire against her. One surprising drawback (in light of its mega budget) is that quite often the actors seem superimposed onto the landscape, as opposed to seeming an organic part of it. While one knows the actors aren’t really in Oz, the movie is supposed to encourage us to suspend our disbelief and embrace the illusion that the characters are. Alas, the movie does not—on a fairly consistent basis. The other major drawback is James Franco’s Oscar. While he’s not quite the black hole that some have made him out to be, he doesn’t bring a lot to the party. He’s charmless, mostly one-note, and lacks the energy and showmanship that would mark him as a leader of men–or even a cutrate magician. The movie leaves the door open for a sequel…is Robert Downey available?
Jim Carrey is terrific in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone as a nasty, ambitious street illusionist and viral video star (the “Brain Rapist”) who specializes in supremely painful acts of endurance and will stop at nothing in his quest to be on top of the magic game. His various illusions are among the funniest things I’ve seen this year. If only the rest were as hilariously anarchic as Carrey is….
Steve Carell is Burt Wonderstone, a Vegas mainstay who’s lost his joy in everything: the glossy magic act he performs by rote with his best buddy (Steve Buscemi); the meaningless sexual conquests he racks up from the attractive audience volunteers who throw themselves at him; and his friendship with Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton, which has congealed into a loveless business marriage bound by contractual obligations, threatened by stagnation—and Carrey’s all-stops-out performance. Wonderstone’s fall and eventual rise is not exactly full of surprises; he basically needs to find his mojo, which he does courtesy of an amusing Alan Arkin as Burt’s magical mentor and Olivia Wilde as Burt’s patient, talented colleague. Careel is fine if not particularly inspired and he, Buscemi and Arkin generates some real affection and chemistry when they’re onscreen together—just not enough to prevent Carrey from swiping the movie out from under their very capes.