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Carell’s Mess; Wild Mouseketeers; Free Philip Roth: Film

Steve Buscemi and Steve Carell as Anton Marvelton and the title character in
Steve Buscemi and Steve Carell as Anton Marvelton and the title character in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." The film is playing across the U.S. Photographer: Ben Glass/Warner Bros. Entertainment via Bloomberg

March 16 (Bloomberg) -- For all his loud-mouthed bluster, Steve Carell can be a timid comedian, retreating from full-on jerkdom into teary pandering.

He shows that hand again in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a clumsy, dazzle-free comedy about big-time Vegas magicians.

Carell plays the title character, an egotistical headliner who cruelly treats his old friend and onstage partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) like a prop.

They look like Siegfried and Roy, but behave like The Sunshine Boys.

Lest we take the Siegfried and Roy bit too literally, “Wonderstone” materializes a lovely magician’s assistant (Olivia Wilde) as Burt’s love interest, who comes across as a screenwriter’s afterthought.

Make that screenwriters. No fewer than six are attached to the flat “Wonderstone” screenplay, and none seem to have logged much time at magic shows.

The performances of Burt and Anton wouldn’t have passed muster 40 years ago with Ed Sullivan’s audience, much less today’s.

Worse, a mugging, long-haired Jim Carrey (buff but looking every minute of his 51 years) is cast as an upstart David Blaine-type performer whose reliance on physical endurance stunts threatens the popularity of Burt’s old-school illusions.

No Charms

“Wonderstone” is oblivious to the charms of the milieu it both mocks and sentimentalizes. We’re lectured repeatedly about the wonders of well-performed magic, yet director Don Scardino relies on computer-generated trickery. The coup de theatre that puts Burt and Anton back on top is a cheat of literally unbelievable proportions.

Most off-putting of all, though, is Carell’s weirdly inconsistent approach. One moment he’s effetely dissing his rival as “a hot mess,” and the next he’s oafishly choosing a female volunteer over a gay guy in the audience.

Perhaps the filmmakers blanched at going full-Siegfried. Too bad: Carell and Buscemi might have had some fun going all-out flamboyant. Instead, “Wonderstone” hedges its bets and spoils the trick.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” from New Line Cinema, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *1/2 (Evans)

‘Spring Breakers’

“I’m starting to think,” says one of the girls gone very wild in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” “that this is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.”

If you missed out on beer bonging yourself into a spring-break stupor, Korine’s loopy, lurid and hypnotic film could serve as a travelogue to that junction of heaven and hell.

With a cast of bikinied ex-Disney starlets and the ubiquitous James Franco, “Spring Breakers” re-imagines the annual beach bacchanal as an ultraviolent sexploitation drive-in movie.

Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (the writer/director’s wife) are college students desperate for a trip to Florida’s St. Petersburg.

The neon-lit, pseudo-documentary style, with dreamy flashforwards and scenes repeated from varying perspectives, is a long way from “Where the Boys Are.”

With a fake gun and a real mallet, three of the girls rob a local Chicken Shack to fund their trip.

Jail Birds

Once in Florida, they drink, do drugs, phone home (“Hi Grandma!”) and eventually land in jail. Too scared to call their parents, they accept bail from a courtroom lurker with corn-rowed hair and a mouthful of silver.

That’s Alien (Franco), a drug-dealing, gun-selling gangsta who seems a far worse option than jail for the naïve revelers.

But here’s where Korine, the former boy wonder who wrote Larry Clark’s notorious 1995 “Kids,” upends our expectations. Donning matching pink ski masks and brandishing semi-automatic weapons, three of the girls more than fit into Alien’s violent world.

They blossom.

Like his heroines, Korine gets carried away with himself, and has less to say about youthful amorality than he pretends. Recklessness has its own appeal, though, and that “Spring Breakers” has in spades.

“Spring Breakers,” from A24, is playing in New York and Los Angeles (and across the U.S. March 22). Rating: *** (Evans)

‘Reality’ Bites

Luciano, the childlike fishmonger in Matteo Garrone’s “Reality,” becomes so convinced he’s about to be picked to compete on “Big Brother” that he starts thinking the judges are watching and -- like God -- evaluating his every move.

In a competitive frenzy he treats street people to meals and gives his furniture to the poor. His put-upon wife, Maria (Loredana Simioli), watches his breakdown in despair.

Aniello Arena, the superb actor who plays Luciano, has a Gene Kelly grin and a nose like the great Neapolitan comic Toto’s. If you wonder why you haven’t seen him before, it’s because he’s doing life for a 1991 multiple murder he took part in as a mob hit man. Garrone got him day passes for the filming.

The director had also wanted him for “Gomorrah,” his 2008 adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s study of the economics of crime. The judge took one look at the subject matter and said no.

Where “Gomorrah” was washed out and dark -- the tones of dried blood and despair -- the candy-colored piazza on which Luciano’s fish store shares space with a cafe-bar, a church and a tripe stand could serve as the set for an Italian “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Alexandre Desplat’s tinkly score, an homage to Nino Rota, sends further frills of wigginess into the air.

The picture won the Grand Prix at Cannes last May. But ultimately Garrone and his co-scenarists don’t know what to do with the cul-de-sac they’ve devised. As Luciano’s grip goes, so does the movie. Until then, though, it’s an original: freakishly cheerful and bright -- the colors of dementia.

“Reality,” from Oscilloscope Laboratories, is playing in New York. Rating: ***1/2 (Seligman)

Free Roth

“I don’t write in Jewish, I write in American,” our greatest novelist -- Jewish, American, whatever -- stipulates at the beginning of “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” a documentary by Livia Manera and William Karel.

The film, from Cineteve and American Masters, is showing at Film Forum (information: http://www.filmforum.org) in New York through March 19 -- Roth’s 80th birthday. (PBS will broadcast it nationally on March 29.) To mark the occasion, and thanks to a grant from the Ostrovsky Family Fund, admission is free for the entire run. Rating: *** (Seligman)


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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