Lazy 'Burt Wonderstone' vs. the hardcore satire of 'Starship Troopers'

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a hit-and-miss comedy that can't decide what it wants to be. Is it a hard-edged satire of puffed-up egos and easily mocked magicians, or is it a heartwarming comedy about a selfish man who is forced to wake up when he falls on hard times?

Because the film commits fully to neither, it ends up being a lukewarm, occasionally funny film based around a couple of very funny set pieces.

Luckily, it stars ample comedic talent, with Steve Carell and Jim Carrey as dueling Las Vegas magicians. Burt Wonderstone (Carell), along with his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) represent the David Copperfield/Lance Burton style of traditional Vegas magic. Their show is full of big, dramatic flourishes and even bigger props, with a dash of stinky lounge singer cheese.

But they are threatened by Steve Gray (Carrey), a Criss Angel/David Blaine mindmeld, whose brand of shock-value street magic is quickly turning Burt and Anton into relics on the Strip. At first, Carell is going for a level of commitment to pure stupidity and one-dimensionalness that rivals Ben Stiller in "Zoolander," a movie that gradually found an audience for its so-stupid-its-clever schtick on home video. This kind of abrasiveness is off-putting, so it's no surprise that it isn't too long before Wonderstone does a complete 180.

Everything that happens after "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" decides to let its character off the hook is completely predictable, but movies with this kind of pervasive silliness don't exist for their original plot lines. When it sheds its prickly nature, the film actually does become more likeable, which means that the satire wasn't really all that focused in the first place.

Carrey is a scene-stealer, Buscemi exudes warmth, and Carell has to turn on a dime, so his performance is uneven at best. There's even a subplot with an elderly magician (Alan Arkin) and an uncomfortable romance (with Olivia Wilde) shoehorned in there, but the only things worth remembering are a couple of scenes involving magic tricks. The best one happens at the end of the film, setting up a funny end-credit sequence.

If you're looking for truly subversive laughs, however, you may want to check out a special screening of the black comedy sci-fi satire "Starship Troopers" at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City next Wednesday March 20. This movie, directed in 1997 by Paul Verhoeven, is so twisted that it subverts the entire message of the Robert Heinlein novel on which it’s based.

The book — which envisions a society where the government only gives the right to vote to youths who fulfill “terms of service,” which was usually in the military — was criticized as fascist when it was published in 1959. Verhoeven keeps Heinlein’s ideas intact, but pokes fun at them mercilessly throughout the movie with hilarious mini-propaganda films (one featuring soldiers giving guns to little kids), tons of Nazi iconography, and cruel military training that includes public flogging and “friendly” fire.

Heinlein’s pro-militaristic novel was turned into a hilarious and biting satire on the dangers of becoming a fascist state. (Although Heinlein fans didn't think it was very funny.) While some of its tactics are directly and hilariously out in the open, many of the film’s surface values caused critics and audiences alike to remain mystified of the movie’s intentions, preferring to stick with a lazier reading and instead writing it off as a teen coming-of-age movie.

To read the film as the movie studio would prefer you to (the DVD describes a “dazzling epic” based on a “classic sci-fi adventure” featuring “courageous soldiers” in search of “shrieking, fire-spitting, brain-sucking special-effects creatures.”) would be naïve, however, and would ignore the many codes Verhoeven uses to signal the audience of the film’s true meaning. "Starship Troopers" is a movie rich with intertextuality that hearkens back to the purposeful misinformation of the propagandic past and the current half-truths of the news media.

Verhoeven uses an enthusiastic young cast and has them act as if they just stepped out of the latest "Saved by the Bell" episode. They begin the war a bunch of idealized lemmings and come out changed by the horrors of war. It’s never explicitly said who started the war (though the humans are the ones invading the “bug” planets), but to anyone in military service, it doesn’t matter. Graphic depictions of said actors getting ripped in half by giant bugs underscore the consequences of a jingoistic worldview.

Believe it or not, "Starship Troopers" is a comedy. From the cheesy, naïve dialogue and acting (again, this was on purpose, to achieve an effect) to the laugh-out-loud absurdity of the Federation’s slanted news shorts (Fox News, anyone?), “Starship Troopers” is the funniest movie to have such scary foresight into what would become post-9/11 extreme patriotism. Plus, you get to see Neil Patrick Harris mature into Josef Mengele. How is that not funny?

Neil Patrick Harris in "Starship Troopers"

Neil Patrick Harris in "Starship Troopers" by Eric Melin

Comments

anomicbomb 1 year, 5 months ago

Completely agree on Starship Troopers, which is a great movie. The amazing thing to me is that the fact that both supporters and detractors of the film so often take it at face value. That it is a parody of authoritarianism should be very obvious, as the film is quite heavy handed at times in how it delivers its satrical content.

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