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Bomb Squad: Why Did “Burt Wonderstone” Tank?

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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.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein talk “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” “Horrible Bosses 2″ and the upcoming “Vacation” remake

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John Francis Daley, the former “Freaks and Geeks” star turned “Bones” actor and movie scribe, can’t really do any magic tricks — “save for one where I can make it look like my middle finger is coming off, because I’m double jointed.” As for his screenwriting partner Jonathan Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses”), he can do two card tricks and one coin-disappearing trick, “in a terrible, terrible way.” But that didn’t stop the two of them from taking a crash course in magic, illusions, and other trickery for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

Daley and Goldstein had been working on their own version of a Vegas magician comedy when New Line came calling, only their version was “more supernatural.”

“We had been wondering why there wasn’t a comedy yet about a Vegas magician,” Goldstein said. “So we went to Vegas, like ‘The Hangover.’ Only what happens there, stays there.”

“We also went to the Magic Castle,” Daley said, “which is the nerd heaven for magic in the best possible way. It’s the closest thing to the magic bar that Burt, Anton, and Rick the Implausible frequent in the movie. So we learned a lot of secrets there.”

Some magicians became more active consultants, such as Penn Gillette and David Copperfield (who cameos in the film and helped developed the movie’s pivotal “Hangman” illusion to be shot on film in one take without any cuts necessary). And when Gillette kept coiling a napkin about his finger while talking to them, as if he were doing so absentmindedly, Daley kept waiting for a trick to happen in front of them. (He ended up being disappointed).

“These people are so secretive about their material,” Daley said, “because it’s a very competitive world, and some of them risk their lives every day when they do certain illusions, like the bullet catching illusion, although telling us that they’re risking their lives might be part of the trick, too. So we didn’t really focus as much on their secrets as the secrets behind their lives.”

“They’re really isolated in this bubble because they have no time to do anything but rehearse and perform,” Goldstein said.

Daley and Goldstein performed a trick of their own, of sorts, by creating a role for Steve Carell in which he would have to wax his body hair — again. (“That’s the main reason to do this movie!” Daley laughed). And they were grateful that Jim Carrey created an illusion with the character they created for him (a blend of David Blaine and Criss Angel). Steve Grey (“the Brain Rapist”) isn’t as much of a conjurer as an endurance specialist, and Daley and Goldstein were intrigued by the idea of him being a “low key villain, but not openly malevolent.” Carrey turned Steve Grey into more of a “messianic figure,” coming up with a whole new look for the street magician and then disappearing into him.

“It was his idea to do the body tattoos,” Goldstein said. “He even drew a picture of the bunny skull and he gave it to the cast and crew as temporary tattoos during production.”

Next up for the Daley-Goldstein team is directing a remake of “Vacation,” starring Ed Helms, in which he would play a grown-up Rusty. “It’s in the spirit of the best of what John Hughes did,” Daley said of the pair’s script. “There will be emotion and you will hopefully care about the characters and their fun mishaps, including another road trip to Wally World.” That, and other homages to the original, are what makes the project “exciting” for the duo. “We’ve been playing it out in our heads,” Goldstein said, “catching up with the characters, and going for the darkest possible reveal.”

Daley and Goldstein said that they’re in talks for both Chevy Chase and Anthony Michael Hall to make appearances in the “Vacation” remake. “Our hope is to have some people back from the original,” Goldstein said. “There will definitely be characters from the original in this, but we do want it to be its own movie.” (And don’t expect cameos from the two in this one, despite popping up in “Wonderstone” as paramedics and stage managers: “We’ll probably stay behind the camera this time,” Daley said.)

Soon to follow will be “Horrible Bosses 2,” which is several drafts into the scripting phase. Just as in the last round, expect several stars to play against type as Jennifer Aniston and others did before. “They don’t have to make a big commitment,” Goldstein said. “They just come in, and it’s not a huge part. But whoever it is, they can come in and go out many nights past their bedtime, and have a lot of fun murdering people — at least on camera.”

Which upcoming Daley and Goldstein project are you most excited for? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Tim Grierson on the Five Good Things That Came Out of Oscar Season

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Oscar season, which starts approximately at the beginning of September, at long last came to an end last night. Even someone like myself who finds much to enjoy about this time of year has to admit that the past five months of constantly tracking which movies and performances have “heat” or “buzz” has been incredibly tiring. Still, optimist that I am, I’d like to think that there’s still some net good that comes out of the seemingly endless buildup to the Oscars. The Academy Awards may still reward the wrong people and overlook the truly worthy, but this year, as always, they also had their positives…

1. They inspired people to see small movies they might not have otherwise.

Films like “Argo” or “Les Miserables” would probably have been hits even without a Best Picture nomination. But nominations for other films helped elevate them to must-see status for people who are choosier in their viewing habits. “Amour” might have seemed too depressing, “Lincoln” could have looked too dry, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” might have seemed too strange, and “Zero Dark Thirty” could have felt too difficult. But hearing that these movies were in the running for the Oscars’ big prize no doubt helped push folks to give these movies a try. Encouraging audiences to seek out challenging fare can never be a bad thing.

2. They raised awareness for worthwhile social and political issues.

The Best Documentary nominees often cover a vast array of important topics, and this year’s crop was no different, whether it was relations between Israel and Palestine (“The Gatekeepers,” “5 Broken Cameras”), sexual assault within the U.S. military (“The Invisible War”), or the history of the AIDS-awareness organization ACT UP (“How to Survive a Plague”). But even the Best Picture field had its share of meaningful films, including “Amour,” which is an unsentimental look at aging and mortality. Perhaps the most important discussion prompted by any Oscar film this year, though, came from “Zero Dark Thirty,” a sobering, absorbing examination of the U.S. government’s 10-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller raised complaints from some, including a few U.S. senators, that the movie celebrated the use of torture — or suggested that it was an effective tool for hunting down terrorists. The debate may have ultimately been more about political posturing, but at least it opened a wider discussion about U.S. policy in the aftermath of 9/11 than any film had been able to do before. (And for the record, anyone who watches “Zero Dark Thirty” will see that the movie is far more nuanced and ambiguous in its commentary than its critics will acknowledge.)

3. They provoked some memorable social-media moments.

Because the Oscar campaigning goes on so long, there are inevitably unexpected side effects. For instance, the creation of memes that are very funny at the moment by may not have a long shelf life. (Angelina Jolie’s Leg was good for some chuckles a year ago. But now?) This year had its share of parodies and homages, their effectiveness very much a question of personal taste. Plenty of friends love the fake Michael Haneke Twitter account where the austere Austrian filmmaker is turned into a cat-loving, spellcheck-deficient goofball. (Me, I think it’s just the same joke repeated over and over again.) And then there was the parody of Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” performance from “Les Miserables.” But my favorite is probably from comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who took to the stage of Largo in Los Angeles in December to perform an utterly sincere rendition of Adele’s “Skyfall” theme. Soon, it hit YouTube, becoming a viral hit. The comedian’s “Skyfall” rendition represented the best of pop cultural referencing, honoring what made the original so fantastic while adding a new, fun dimension to it.

4. They actually had a little suspense.

In the early months of award season, there’s always a little uncertainty about who the frontrunners might be, but eventually the clear-cut favorites assert themselves, and by the time of the actual ceremony, everybody knows who’s going to win Best Picture and most of the major categories. This year, that didn’t happen, as “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo” and even “The Master” were discussed as being possible winners at one point or another. This, of course, is great news for Oscar bloggers and other awards handicappers who want to keep us interested, but for those of us who actually like the Academy Awards telecast, it also created a lot of suspense. That doesn’t happen that often. Their value isn’t in telling us what’s the best

5. They’ll never replace your own preferences for the year’s best films.

From your perspective, any collection of individuals voting on the best anything will ultimately fail to get it right unless they completely agree with you. That’s why I’ve never understood getting that annoyed with the Oscars (or the Independent Spirit Awards or the Golden Globes) when they don’t line up with your individual tastes. If nothing else, the Academy Awards are a way to make each of us consider what constitutes the greatest films and the greatest performances. The Oscars can have their definition — we each have our own.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Tim Grierson on the Critic-Proof Charm of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

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When you see posters advertising his movies, he’s identified as Dwayne Johnson. But nobody calls him that. We all just call him the Rock. There’s something incredibly telling about that. One name — the one we see on posters — is the name of an actor, a movie star. The other — the one we all prefer — belongs to his old life, when he was more of a cartoon character than a real person. But even Johnson seems to understand this reality, even embrace it. He wants to be an action hero, someone taken seriously in Hollywood, but his movies are almost beside the point. He’s bigger than the movies he stars in. And he’s definitely better than them.

Friday sees the release of “Snitch,” which will start screening for most critics this week. I haven’t seen it yet, but I find myself optimistic that it’ll be good. There is no reason I should feel this way. When you look at his recent output, it’s a mixed bag. He’s fun in brief comedic roles in “Get Smart” and “The Other Guys,” essentially spoofing his own tough-guy persona. But then you have the utterly terrible family fare like “Tooth Fairy,” where he was billed as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the so-so action-drama “Faster” where his grit mostly went to waste. Most times, I walk out of his films liking him but not liking the film much at all. Even when the film he’s in is a dog, he’s incredibly charismatic, and he’s funnier than just about any other pure action star out there. Outside of Jason Statham, there’s no movie star for whom I so consistently give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many times he’s disappointed me.

Before he was an actor, he was a wrestler. A fairly successful one known as the Rock. He looked the part with his rippling muscles and cocky demeanor. But he also seemed to understand that most people know wrestling is fake, and so he walked a delicate line, acknowledging the absurdity of the whole thing while at the same time playing into the make-believe. His film career really hasn’t been that different. He knows we all call him the Rock and that his movies aren’t high art. He plays the tough guy, but a tough guy who gets that tough guys are kind of a joke. He won’t deny you the pleasure of enjoying him as a tough guy, but he also doesn’t take it so seriously.

This isn’t to suggest that people who go to his movies think of them as knowing self-parodies. Judging by the commercials for “Snitch,” the movie looks very much like it’s in the same vein as “Faster,” positioning Johnson as an action hero who’s comfortable with drama, albeit that of the B-movie kind. The guy’s clearly ambitious, and he’s willing to try anything. He’ll do inspirational sports movies (“Gridiron Gang”), he’ll do nervy indie dramas (“Southland Tales”), and he’ll do the franchise stuff (“The Scorpion King,” “Fast Five,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”). But his appeal lies in his ability to not seem like a comer: Whether it’s on his Twitter feed or in his “Saturday Night Live” appearances, he works the aw-shucks self-deprecation with such sincerity that if he’s faking it’s his best-ever performance. He’s been on the big screen for more than 10 years now, and yet he’s still able to keep our expectations in check. We may not like his movies but, weirdly, we don’t blame him. He’s that one kid on the baseball team who’s really likable and fun to be around, and who cares if he can’t hit? You just enjoy being with him.

That can’t last forever, of course. Eventually audiences will get tired of him, or a newer actor will swoop in and steal the parts that he used to get. But for now, Johnson is unique among movie stars, and that uniqueness is worth celebrating, even if it does mean sitting through junk like “Journey 2.” Frankly, at this point the movies are just an excuse to have him around in the culture cracking jokes and being all Rock-like. There are plenty of movie stars with more depth than him. But there aren’t many who seem to enjoy their stardom as much as he does — and make it so enjoyable for the rest of us.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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