Burt Wonderstone: “Mr. Gray. What you do is not magic. It is monkey porn.”
Steve Gray: “I understand. It’s natural for a dying leaf to be frightened by the autumn wind.”
OK, here you go: possibly the most “deep,” esoteric analysis of the movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone you will ever read.
Prepare to have your world-view, your religious identification, and even your very perception of reality altered forever—all through this seemingly insignificant 2013 movie starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey. We’re gonna talk Simon Magus, we’re gonna talk alchemy, we’re gonna talk psychedelic plants…it’s gonna be wild. Really.
Jim Carrey—who I think of as a “Pop-Culture Shaman”—portrays the self-mutilating Steve Grey in the movie. His Bruce Almighty co-star Steve Carell is also on board in the film, as the magician title character. As you will see, the conflict between these two wielders of magic is as timeless as history itself, with Grey being a false prophet and Wonderstone having access to the true wisdom of the ancients.
I. The Wonder Stone
A young Burt shows early promise as a magician—like many of the hero archetype there is no biological father present in his life, and he is instead tutored by a “village wise man” (Alan Arkin as Rance Holloway) via video cassette in the ways of magic. Thus, The Great Tradition is passed on to the next generations, as it is meant to be (and we will delve a bit deeper into exactly what that Great Tradition might be in a little bit).
While this movie is on the surface about “stage magic,” many of the “tricks” here are clearly fantastic in nature, and it becomes quite obvious that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is about a lot more than performers in Las Vegas. In fact, in earlier drafts of the film’s script, far more “Harry Potter” type magick—rather than card-counting magic—was supposed to be included.
While we are on the topic of Potter, it is interesting to note that Wonderstone’s name is, literally, “Wonder Stone”—like the fabled Philosopher’s Stone (“Sorcerer’s Stone”), which was the most sought-after item in Western Alchemy and was fabled to have the power of transmutation. Wonderstone is thus linked to a very long tradition of magick—the recipient of secret rituals (we all know the taboo against a magician revealing his “secrets”) that Holloway has passed down to him on the boy’s birthday (an initiation day of sorts).
Burt is thus a wonder-worker of stone—a worker of stone being also known as a “mason.” Yes, I totally went there.
But if we regard Freemasonry as being the continuity of ancient metaphysical traditions and not simply the cause of every conspiracy on the planet, Burt’s journey is placed in clearer context, and it will lend his conflict with the “Jesusy” Steve Grey far more meaning.
II. Animus, Anima, and the Sun God
Like every good alchemist, Burt Wonderstone has to balance the animus and anima—which he does by having an assistant, Anton Marvelton, who seems to be coded more “feminine.” When the young Burt meets Anton at school, the latter claims to lack testosterone and thus has to take pills prescribed by his doctor.
We later see the play of animus/anima—transmutation of matter—with Burt and Anton’s “trick” where they switch the heads of a man and a woman.
Burt and Anton are soon very successful stage magicians, performing at the Aztec Casino. The use of the word Aztec is quite apt—as the Aztecs worshipped the Sun, and Burt has styled himself as being a representative of the Sun in his dress. He wears a long blonde mane of hair (Sun=lion), a jumpsuit with Sun-like streaks on it, and a big Sun pendant on his chest.
Before there was the worship of the Christ, there was worship of the Sun—indeed, Jesus is the Son/Sun of God. More links, therefore, to the Old Traditions.
And a bit of synchronicity—Carell and Arkin starred together in the film Little Miss Sunshine.
Going back to the Freemasonry connection, Burt’s centerpiece magical performance involves a simulated hooded hanging—which just happens to be an actual Masonic ritual. It simulates death and resurrection—just as the Sun “dies” when it sets and “resurrects” when it rises.
So Burt Wonderstone is literally the “Golden Boy” of the magic/magick circuit, the Sun God who periodically dies and is resurrected within an ancient ritual passed down through the generations—until a masochistic bloody fanatical long-haired “magical messiah” comes on the scene, ready to “Brain Rape” (which is the actual name of his show) his awe-struck and adoring followers/fans. Not since Simon Magus squared off against Saint Peter have we seen such a titanic battle of the mystics!
III. Steve Grey as the Pseudo-Christ
Jim Carrey is no stranger to playing shamanic figures, so the role of Steve Grey fits right in. He reportedly wanted to make the role “more Jesus-y,” (and there is, of course, the mystical “JC” initials) and so Grey specifically became a long-haired messianic figure, perpetually bleeding and influencing his entranced followers (“sights and wonders”).
Whereas Wonderstone derives his magic/magick prowess from a long-standing tradition dating back to ancient times (and which, the movie hints at though primal symbolism, could be Masonic/Sun-worshiping in nature), Grey is a hardcore New Testament sort of dude.
Their conflict will be no less than that of Saint Peter versus Simon Magus, the “New Religion” threatening to supplant the old.
Like Jesus, Grey eschews the “temples” (Wonderstone’s Aztec Casino venue) to perform his miracles, instead taking it to The People out on the street. In comparison to the spoiled Wonderstone, this makes Grey somewhat (at least on the surface) a populist magician, as Jesus was a messiah “for the people.” Wonderstone watches as Grey’s tricks culminate in a bloody scene, as the “Jesusy” man cuts open his cheek to pull out a gore-stained “Queen” card:
The unusual card trick brings several images to mind:
1) Jesus telling the people to “turn the other cheek” (the trick involved a staged “fight” with an onlooker in which his mother was called a whore).
2) The Manchurian Candidate (long-haired messianic figures like Charles Manson were sometimes said to be created through mind-control techniques—and Manson, who Grey resembles and acts like to an extent, certainly knew how to use mind-control tricks on others).
3) A strange representation of the Adam & Eve myth (“Eve”—the woman on the card – born from Adam)
When Wonderstone later visits Grey after the show, the latter blows him off as not “real” enough. In the New Religion, “real” religion means viscera—not the airy-dairy world of Spirit:
IV: Burt Wonderstone Loses His Mojo
Realizing that he is losing popularity to Grey, Wonderstone “updates” his look and devises his own masochistic stunt: spending three days in a clear plastic cube suspended in the air.
Note the significance of “three days”—Jesus ressurected within 3 days, and Wonderstone is imitating him in order to “keep up” with the New Religion. Only Wonderstone’s “crypt”/”cave” is spiritual—a clear box. It is not enough, however—the New Religion is dazzling the masses with self-flagelation and torture—and Wonderstone fails in disgrace. Wonderstone also “breaks up” with his partner/Anima, Anton Marvelton; now he is only half a person, the yin/yang Animus/Anima dichotomy split.
Wonderstone and Grey are now mortal enemies, with Grey’s New Religion taking over the world. Wonderstone is thrown out of the (Aztec) temple, and must go into exile with a profane idol of himself (the advertising standee) “mocking” him with the memory of what he once was. He will have to go back to the realm of the ancients (the nursing home) and relearn the essential truths of spirit and magick from the source (his virtual “teacher,” Rance Holloway).
Meanwhile, Wonderstone’s former assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) plays a literal “Scarlet Woman” to Grey, dressed in red with a red mask (think back to the bloody Queen card). Grey isn’t as “Jesusy” as he likes to portray himself—like Jack Parsons, who cultivated a “Scarlet Woman” of his own as in the Crowleyan style, Grey is far more Anti-Christ than Christ. In addition, Grey expresses no care for the safety of his “followers,” including the children—again, more Manson than Jesus.
Getting back his “mojo,” so to speak (and I can only think of a similar “fall from grace”/literal loss of mojo storyline from the Austin Powers movies), Wonderstone must complete his re-initiation by coupling with Jane—the Great Working, the Sword and the Chalice, Animus/Anima combined.
Meanwhile, Anton has gone all Terence McKenna and scores plant-derived hallucinogens in Cambodia. More on that in a bit.
V: Carrey Vs. Carell
We now get to the great showdown between Wonderstone and Grey, which takes place appropriately enough during another “initiation” ceremony—that of a birthday party for a young man. As we watch the two compete—and especially as Grey “bewitches” Wonderstone and embarrasses him—we can only think back to another battle between actors Carell and Carrey—in Bruce Almighty:
Who can forget Bruce—who is granted powers from God, in a “Jesusy” way—making his coworker Evan speak in tongues on a live broadcast? In the sequel to Bruce Almighty, Evan will play another Biblical figure—Noah.
Here’s where things get even more subtextual and synchronistically weird.
Roughly around the same time Burt Wonderstone came out, Carrey had slammed former NRA prez Charlton Heston in his Funny or Die video “Cold Dead Hands.” Who is Heston most famous for playing (right after that dude from Planet of the Apes)? Another Old Testament hero, Moses.
So we have “Jesus”/Steve Grey/Carrey/Bruce/Funny or Die Guy up against Moses/Noah/Wonderstone/Carrell/Evan/Heston. You have the New Religion—one of viscera and blood—going up against the Old Religion (Old Testament teachings deriving from the same well as Wonderstone’s ancient wisdom/Masonic roots).
VI: Good Trips And Bad Trips
But in the big magic/magick competition at the end of the film, Wonderstone will delve deep, deep, deep into the literal roots of the Old Ways—by utilizing the plant-derived hallucinogens to win. From the medicine man deep in the jungle to Cagliostro, doping up (or tripping out) onlookers and patients were part-and-parcel of the workings at hand:
The peyote/mescalin/mushrooms are the doorway into magickal experience and spiritual growth, and indeed Wonderstone literally drugs the audience; when they awaken, they are no longer in the temple, but in an open field. By utilizing the natural hallucinogenic powers of plants, Wonderstone and Co. has helped the audience “escape” the confines of the temple and open up their mind.
On the other hand, Steve Grey—true to his philosophy—utilizes a far more literal approach to opening one’s mind, taking a drill to his brain. This is, of course, the act of trepanning—modern practitioners believe that by boring a hole in their skulls they will achieve a deeper state of consciousness. This apparently doesn’t work for Grey, who now has brain damage—he has literally gone on a “bad trip,” choosing the New Religion yen for sado-masochism over the gentle plant-worship of the ancient shamans:
In closing, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a parable of the mystic knowledge of the ancients going up against the prevailing New Religion—and winning. True enlightenment does not have to come through the mortification of one’s body, or through “blood sacrifice.” The movie encourages the shamanically-inclined to search for the roots of magick—the literal roots, all the way to the Source.
And so that’s it—my take on The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a movie that had a rather short shelf life in the theaters, but which I’ve always loved.