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Bomb Squad: Why Did “Burt Wonderstone” Tank?

burt-wonderstone

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Welcome to “Bomb Squad,” a recurring column that takes a closer look at a movie that tanked at the box office and tries to figure out what happened.

On paper, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” seemed to be a surefire hit. You’ve got Steve Carell, Jim Carrey back in super-goofy mode, and a zany premise about Vegas magicians. That should have been enough elements to bring out comedy fans, but “Burt Wonderstone” has been a disaster, earning only about $17 million after two weekends. In the immortal words of Mike LaFontaine from “A Mighty Wind,” wha happened? Let’s take a look at some possible theories that could explain this commercial train wreck and then come up with our verdict…

Theory No. 1: People aren’t sold on Steve Carell as a leading man.

Carell has built up a following thanks to his years as the lead of the sitcom “The Office.” But, as has been noted, transitioning to a full-time movie star can be difficult, even though Carell had enjoyed success prior to leaving “The Office” with “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Evan Almighty” and “Get Smart.” “Burt Wonderstone” is his first really big studio comedy since exiting the show — 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” was more of an adult comedy-drama — but it’s hard to imagine that the world has suddenly decided they’re uninterested in him. (Although, to be fair, last summer’s indie “Searching for a Friend at the End of the World,” another adult comedy-drama, was a bit of a commercial disappointment as well.) If people want to point fingers for “Burt Wonderstone’s” failure, they should probably look elsewhere.

Theory No. 2: This is a Will Ferrell movie, but without Will Ferrell.

As I mentioned in my own review, “Burt Wonderstone” is the sort of film Ferrell has made his trademark: It’s the story of an overbearing buffoon who has to learn to grow up after he loses all his money and success. (It might as well have been called “Las Vegas Nights: The Ballad of Burt Wonderstone.”) But Carell isn’t Ferrell. Where Ferrell’s characters are supersized, Carell’s tend to be precisely controlled and subtle. (Even when Carell plays bozos, like Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart” and Brick Tamland in “Anchorman,” he gets laughs by being deadpan, not over-the-top.) Wonderstone’s large ego needs a large personality — for all of Carell’s talent, that’s not his strong suit.

Theory No. 3: Folks don’t find magicians funny.

There are actually two different styles of magic being mocked in “Burt Wonderstone.” On one side, you’ve got the cheesy, tame, glitzy Vegas magicians being represented by Carell and Steve Buscemi. On the other, you’ve got the edgy, shocking street magicians, such as David Blaine and Criss Angel, personified by Carrey’s whacked-out-of-his-mind Steve Gray. These are, in theory, prime comedic targets — self-absorbed and self-serious types always are — but were audiences really craving a sendup of magicians? Neither of the two magic genres being spoofed in “Burt Wonderstone” are exactly high-profile in today’s culture. Angel and Blaine aren’t as popular/infamous as they were a few years ago, and Wonderstone himself doesn’t exactly recall any specific Vegas magician. So it’s not as if this world was such a juicy target that it was just begging to be lampooned. By comparison, Ferrell has had hits by parodying genres or worlds that are very much in the public consciousness: the buddy-cop movie with “The Other Guys” and NASCAR with “Talladega Nights.” It’s difficult to place “Burt Wonderstone’s” disappointing grosses entirely at the feet of its setting, but you do have to wonder if some people stayed away simply because they didn’t connect with the subject matter or long to see it satirized.

Theory No. 4: It didn’t have the one killer bit you could sell in an ad.

For as much as people complain about studios ruining a movie’s best jokes by putting them in the trailers and commercials, there’s a reason why it keeps happening: It works. If audiences laugh at an ad for a comedy, they’re a lot more likely to see the movie. That’s just human nature. And with that in mind, “Burt Wonderstone” was hurt because it simply didn’t have that one terrifically funny scene that you could show over and over again in commercials to convince audiences to give the movie a try. Now look at “Identity Thief,” which got horrible reviews but has so far grossed more than $127 million. That Melissa McCarthy vehicle was able to clearly sell what it was in its ads: a broad comedy with lots and lots of slapstick. The advertising for “Burt Wonderstone” wasn’t as clear, which made it a tougher proposition for audiences.

The Verdict

As is often the case, the commercial failure of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” seems like a combination of factors rather than one clear problem. But rather than doubting Carell’s star wattage — or Carrey’s, for that matter — it seems more likely that a muddled campaign to advertise a movie whose high-concept premise wasn’t actually as can’t-miss as it appeared is more to blame. And in those cases, star power may not be enough to overcome the obstacles. It’s not magic.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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Jurassic Park Cast

Park Rules

5 Lessons Modern Blockbusters Could Learn From Jurassic Park

Catch the Jurassic Park movies this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Jurassic Park wasn’t the first blockbuster that set out to appeal to everyone, but it is arguably the most successful of its kind. Adults, kids, boys, girls, nerds, jocks, and lawyers love it. (Okay, maybe not lawyers). With a script from David Koepp, direction by Steven Spielberg (who also had the Oscar winning Schindler’s List the same year) and groundbreaking special effects that still thrill modern CGI-addled viewers, Jurassic Park was the most ambitious film project of its time. And as we see with dreadful early-’90s megaflops like Waterworld and Showgirls, the bigger they were, the harder they were apt to fall.

Jurassic Park faced the impossible scenario of having to appeal to everyone, and the end result is one of the very few examples that actually succeeded. So what lessons can we take from the shining beacon of both mass appeal and being smarter than the competition?

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Source Material

Nedry

An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hit novel, Jurassic Park changes a lot from page to screen, but the most significant changes are in the characters, in that they actually exist. Crichton’s primary interests were scientific morals and philosophy, not character and story, so the characters end up more as vessels for the action and ideas rather than, well, characters. Adding dimension to the characters changed a great deal of the material, since the material flowed more organically not just from ideas and philosophy, but character action.

Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the well-meaning, impassioned lover of science and possibilities, is a much more compelling character in the film than the corporate, grandchild-hating jerk who is poetically eaten by dinos in the book. Nedry (Wayne Knight) isn’t just in the story for some corporate espionage — there’s a genuine “daddy issue” undercurrent in his relationship with Hammond, and his desire to subvert his father figure goes horribly awry.

Tim and Lex (played by Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) aren’t just whiny nuisances who are kids for kids’ sake, but are given interests and agencies that pay off later in the film — Lex with her computer skills, and Tim with his basic dinosaur knowledge. The movie gives Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) a character arc by getting him to connect with children, whom initially make him uncomfortable, which helps solidify his relationship to Ellie Satler (Laura Dern).


2. Avoid useless characters.

Jurassic World

Often in movies we see half-baked young characters (kids, teenagers) who get jammed into the film for no other reason than to appeal to a wider demographic. For example, the child characters in Independence Day are borderline comical both in their narrative non-purpose and how much they don’t act like children.

Last summer’s mega-blockbuster/franchise extender Jurassic World was guilty of this, too. Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) have no skill, except for (apparently) some world experience from That One Time They Fixed A Car, a skill which was not set up nor ever referred to again. After the kids are rescued, they’re basically fleshy backpacks for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard to foist around for the rest of the movie.

Lex and Tim not only aid in Grant’s growth, but also use their skills to further the plot. Sure, it’s a little goofy how Lex uses her knowledge to save the day, but this was 1993. Nowadays people know a bit more about UNIX systems (and, let’s face it, most people learned about UNIX systems from other people joking about how Jurassic Park got it oh-so-wrong).


3. You can include complex concepts…but keep it simple.

Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum

Part of the brilliance of Jurassic Park isn’t that it involves complex philosophical concepts, but all of the different ways it disseminates complex information. It’s like a sampler platter of ways to both world-build and sew in theme.

Jurassic Park grazes over complex concepts like Chaos Theory, but that is not to say that it only pays them lip service, and moreover, the characters don’t just stop the action to explain things to the audience in an inorganic way. As a writer of prose, Crichton is guilty of this. These ideas are present in the original novel, but in the film, they are distilled, focused and sharpened to a fine point. The theme of chaos in an unpredictable environment is shown both implicitly (after Nedry’s meddling throws the trip into chaos) and explicitly, where Malcolm exposits repeatedly, betwixt a uniquely suave mix of “ums” and “uhs” and other Goldblum-isms.

The overarching theme of the movie is not so much that man should not play God (as Malcolm argues), but that man cannot, with perfect accuracy, predict all outcomes. That is a much more complex and satisfying conclusion to come to than simply “man play God, man go too far!”. The “don’t play God” aspect is certainly there, but it doesn’t end there. There is a genius simplicity in Jurassic Park‘s complexity.


4. Exposition should be actually motivated!

Jurassic Park Chaos

Since all of our main characters are experts in different fields, talking to each other about their respective fields is a great and easy way to let the audience in on things the characters already know in a natural way. Some of the scientific concepts are imparted by way of a cartoon in the Jurassic Park visitor center, because it is a theme park, and it is an educational “ride,” as Hammond says.

My favorite example of this is the scene where Malcolm gives Ellie a primer on Chaos Theory in a discussion which could’ve be really pretentious and boring. He gives the elevator pitch in the form of trying to describe the Butterfly Effect, but she doesn’t get it, leading to a more practical (and flirtatious) lesson that she can actually follow. Whereas in old sci-fi B-movies of yore it would have been just a bunch of guys standing in labs, explaining things to each other, here it is motivated.

Ellie and Malcolm didn’t have any kind of a “thing” in the book, but adding this now famous moment to the film not only gives us a little philosophical discussion, it allows for integral character development as well — Ellie egging on Alan by being receptive to Ian’s flirting, and Alan showing his difficulty committing to her by not engaging. It’s subtle, but all of these character traits come in and are built upon later.

Finally, if you learn nothing else from Jurassic Park, remember:


5. Dinosaurs Eat Man, Woman Inherits the Earth.

Jurassic Park Women Inherit

Just sayin’.

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Weird Al Hidden America

Keep America Weird

Watch “Weird Al” in the Trailer for Hidden America With Jonah Ray

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: SeeSo

Jonah Ray, Nerdist podcaster and future resident of the Satellite of Love on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, is motoring across the country as part of a new travel parody show on SeeSo. And “Weird Al” is coming along for the journey.

Hidden America with Jonah Ray takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to tourism travel logs as the comedian visits and fumbles through cities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Austin. Along the way, Ray will meet up with Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic, Randall Park, David Koechner, and more.

Check out the trailer below. For more “Weird Al,” be sure to catch the premiere of Comedy Bang! Bang! season five on June 3rd at 11P.

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Back to the Future Jaws Parody

Swimming with Sharks

10 Hilarious Jaws Spoofs

Catch the Jaws movies during IFC's Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

How much is Jaws a part of our culture? Over 40 years after its release, it’s still prompting parodies that get laughs. To get you ready for IFC’s Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon, check out our favorite spoofs of Jaws from across pop culture. Want more? You’re gonna need a bigger list…

1. “Mr. Jaws,” Dickie Goodman

Released just a few months after the movie’s debut on June 20th, 1975, this novelty record spent ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #4. In one of the earliest examples of sampling, comedian Dickie Goodman spliced in snippets of pop songs to answer interview questions with the Great White himself.


2. Jaws II (Land Shark), Saturday Night Live

It took only the fourth episode ever of SNL to establish one of its iconic recurring bits and play into the hysterical fear of sharks that Jaws prompted. A big punchline of this sketch: A sequel to Jaws! Who in 1975 could imagine such a thing??


3. “Jowls,” The Carol Burnett Show

Exactly one week after SNL spoofed Jaws, Carol Burnett and company did their take. Looking back now, what’s most amazing is that network TV allowed a sketch to go on for eleven minutes.


4. Mad Magazine

Mad Magazine Jaws
Mad Magazine/DC Comics

Even Jaws wouldn’t want to take a bite of Alfred E. Neuman in this issue from 1976. The comic inside spoofed the movie with a musical version -– an idea that took off over 30 years later.


5. 1941

How many times has this happened to you? You make a legendary movie, you see people parody it, and you want in! That’s the unlikely scenario that led to Jaws director Steven Spielberg making his own spoof as part of his 1979 war comedy 1941. How authentic did Spielberg get? Yes, that’s Susan Backlinie, the original lady in the water from Jaws, meeting up with trouble in the moonlight yet again.


6. Airplane!

One of the greatest disaster comedies of all time sets the tone for hilarity with its opening sequence. Even before the title appears, you know you’re in for a movie that winks at its place in film history.


7. Back to the Future Part II

1989 brought us this blockbuster sequel making fun of blockbuster sequels, as Marty McFly finds himself in a futuristic 2015 showing Jaws 19. While the actual 2015 came and went with Jaws only having three sequels, Universal treated fans of both movies to a trailer for the film that might have been…


8. Clerks

Kevin Smith was one of a generation of filmmakers influenced by Jaws. Many of his films contain references to his love of the original film, but only Clerks has the salsa shark.


9. Giant Killer Shark: The Musical

Mad Magazine Jaws

Why should live theater be without a spoof of Jaws? Just because of the risk of a massive lawsuit over intellectual property infringement? That may help explain the please-don’t-sue-us title of Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, which debuted in 2006. Just to drive the point home: the action takes place on and around Copyright-Protected Island. Scary!


10. Bill Murray’s Jaws Love Theme, SNL 40

The star-studded SNL 40th anniversary special marked four decades since the debut of SNL and of Jaws. It featured not one but two references to the movie, with Bill Murray as lounge singer Nick Ocean singing the love theme from Jaws we never knew we were missing. (He reprised the song at the event above.) Later, the Land Shark himself appeared on “Weekend Update.” Jaws: The gift that keeps on giving laughs.

Spend Memorial Day with IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Marathon featuring “fin facts” from “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander!

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