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.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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