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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.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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