The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens today with middling to bad reviews, but even though the movie is off to an iffy start, its star Steve Carell may have a lot to look forward to this year—maybe even an Oscar bid. The problem with his first major release of 2013 is that he's just not Will Ferrell.
One of the complaints about Wonderstone—in which Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey play struggling magicians—is that it seems like the role should have gone to Ferrell, a comic actor so broad he can make the most ridiculous characters carry an entire movie. Lou Lumenick at the New York Post writes: "Steve Carell is fatally miscast as an arrogant, flamboyant third-rate magician in 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,' which by all rights should have been a second-rate Will Ferrell vehicle." Ty Burr at The Boston Globe writes that Wonderstone is a "is a lazy, underwritten imitation Will Ferrell movie." That's not to say Carell is bad. Stephen Holden at the New York Times explains that "Because Mr. Carell doesn’t go in for the kind of all-out caricature that Mr. Ferrell embraces with a manic glee, 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' has an underlying soulfulness that cuts against its farcical aspirations." That said, Holden adds that the movie then "lacks a shark’s bite."
Carell entered our filmgoing consciousness as the guy who got his chest waxed in inglorious fashion in Judd Apatow breakout The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but he's always had a bit of a serious actor lurking inside—one that he sometimes eschews for the broad humor of something like Wonderstone. The year after Virgin he appeared as a suicidal Proust scholar in the dark comedy Little Miss Sunshine, which went on to garner a bunch of Oscar nominations.
And the Oscars may be where Carell is heading this year. He's appearing in two movies that could be contenders, and one where he makes a dramatic turn that could place him in the running for a prize himself. The first, like Sunshine, got a vote of confidence Sundance. Carell reunites with Sunshine costar Toni Collette, playing her boyfriend, in The Way, Way Back from the Oscar-winning screenwriters of The Descendants. While the reviews weren't all raves, the movie sold for a bunch of money to Fox Searchlight.
A more likely Oscar vehicle for Carell is Foxcatcher, a movie that appeared on many (very) early Oscar prediction lists and features Carell as John du Pont, the eccentric and schizophrenic supporter of USA wrestling who ends up murdering David Schultz, an Olympic champion. The film is directed by Bennett Miller, known for Moneyball and Capote.
Then, of course, Carell has the Anchorman sequel, where he returns as daffy weatherman Brick, alongside who else but Ferrell. The problem is while Ferrell's Ron Burgundy somehow manages to be a character so ludicrous he can hold our attention for a feature film, someone like Brick can't. Carell is great in those wacky characters in small doses, but is best when he's given roles that allow him to give his characters conscience and depth. He can do that in something like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and we'll see if he succeeds in something dark like Foxcatcher.
So forget Burt Wonderstone, Carell may actually be making mostly the right choices this year.