Some thoughts on Horace and Pete

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In late January, Louis C.K. “pulled a Beyoncé” and dropped the first episode of his web series Horace and Pete. He had done zero promotion for this project; the first that fans heard of it was when members of his mailing list (like me) received an email saying that the first episode was available. No one had any idea that Louis C.K. was even working on a web series; it just magically appeared out of nowhere. The web series was being created as they went along – every Saturday I’d receive an often hilarious email from Louis C.K. letting me know that a new episode had been posted. I looked forward to getting these emails every week, as there was no clear indication of how long this web series was going to run. As quickly as it magically appeared, it could just as quickly disappear. I had fallen behind on actually watching the episodes, but when it was announced that the series was done after its 10th episode (which dropped this weekend) I found some time this weekend to power through the 6 remaining episodes that I had.

Horace and Pete is focused on the bar of the same name and the family that owns said bar. Horace and Pete has been operating in Brooklyn for over 100 years and is always run by a Horace and a Pete (the name is handed down in the family). The bar is currently run by brothers Horace VIII (Louis C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) who took over the bar after the death of their father; the bartender is their Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), who is a foul-mouthed straight shooter that has no worries about being political correct. Their sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) wants to shut the bar down and sell the property, though as a woman she has been given no part of the family business. The bar survives thanks to its regulars (played by Jessica Lange, Kurt Metger, Steven Wright, Nick DiPaolo, and Tom Noonan), who often get in spirited discussions about issues of politics, philosophy and religion. Horace and Pete is directed and written by Louis C.K. and has the feel of a stage play.

Overall, I really enjoyed Horace and Pete. I always appreciate when an artist is willing to take chances and has their own unique artistic vision and there is no doubt that Horace and Pete is a singular labor of love from Louis C.K. Some episodes work a lot better than others – the deliberate pacing of the show can occasionally make it feel very slow – but even when Horace and Pete isn’t at its peak, I was still invested in seeing where the story was going. And it was worth the moments that dragged for the moments of sheer genius; there is no doubt that Horace and Pete is a master class in acting. Tremendous performances are everywhere, from the regular cast to people like Laurie Metcalf who just drops by for one episode to give a mesmerizing performance that you can’t look away from. Louis C.K. has submitted Horace and Pete for Emmy consideration and it would truly be a shame if some of these amazing performances were not recognized. Alan Alda play completely against type here and Steve Buscemi handles all the difficult beats that he’s asked to play with nuance.

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If you haven’t watched Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie, it’s important to warn you that Horace and Pete is not your run of the mill comedy. There are very few moments that will make you actually laugh out loud. A lot of the comedy in Horace and Pete comes from the absurd and finding humor in tragedy. The people of Horace and Pete have not lived very happy lives and some are struggling with illness. They also aren’t very nice people – they have their moments, but they can be casually cruel to one another. The finale, in particular, was beautifully brutal; the fact that you are so invested in these characters despite their many flaws is a testament to what Louis C.K. and company have created. It’s not always an easy watch, but Horace and Pete is worth going on the emotional roller-coaster with these characters.

The entire series is available for purchase on Louis C.K.’s website. Because Louis C.K. was using the purchase of the previous week’s episode to help finance the production of the next episode, the entire series will cost about $30. By distributing the web series himself, he had complete artistic control over the endeavor, but Louis C.K. also went into a lot of debt to see the project through. I respect his commitment to his artistic vision and while I normally wouldn’t pay to watch something like this I have so much respect and trust for Louis C.K. that I was willing to pony up the cast to go along with him in this journey.

Horace and Pete is probably not for everyone (the language is definitely NSFW or for children), but overall it really worked for me. A lot of thought went into crafting these characters and the familial relationships are fascinating (if not painful) to watch unfold. Louis C.K. is always doing something a little different and Horace and Pete is no exception. If you are primarily familiar with him from his stand-up, it might take you a little while to adjust to the tone of Horace and Pete; those who are fans of Louis will adapt to the style much more quickly. Horace and Pete mines some difficult territory and some of it is just uncomfortable to watch, but ultimately it is worth going along for the ride.

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – A Review

When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I was fascinated by magic. I don’t know if a lot of kids find themselves drawn to magic at some point in their lives; I’m guessing it happens more often for boys than for girls, if for no other reason than I can’t think of any famous female magicians. David Copperfield specials were still a pretty routine thing to see on TV when I was growing up and while I knew that he didn’t actually make the Great Wall of China or the Statue of Liberty disappear, I was always intrigued with trying to figure out how the trick (or “illusion” so as not to anger Gob Bluth) was done.

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I even tried my hand at magic for a while. My parents bought me a Fisher Price magic set and I would put on shows when their friends came over to visit (folks who graciously endured what couldn’t have been much fun for them).  I occasionally talked my brother into being my assistant; I don’t remember if I gave myself a fancy magician name (probably something along the lines of “The Amazing Heather”), but I did remember the capes. I performed some magic for one of our elementary school talent shows, but no one was very impressed and my brief career in prestidigitation came to a quick and undistinguished end.

We probably don't have to tell my brother that I've posted this online.

We probably don’t have to tell my brother that I’ve posted this online.

This is to illustrate that I was firmly in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’s corner. With a likable and talented cast, a look into the world of Vegas magicians had a lot of promise. Unfortunately, there were just not enough laughs in this movie to make this film worth a trip to the theater. There were some sweet moments, but ultimately The Incredible Burt Wonderstone just isn’t magical.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are childhood friends who have been headlining a Vegas magic show for years. Their show has grown stale, their friendship is frayed and their audiences are dwindling, though Burt’s oversized ego seems unable to comprehend this. The rising popularity of street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who is in the mold of Mindfreak’s Criss Angel, makes Burt and Anton’s boss (James Gandolfini) think it might be time to move in a new direction.

Surprisingly, some of the problems with the movie stem from the casting. Steve Carell is very funny and brings a real vulnerability to a lot of his comedic roles, but it is a little hard to buy him and a womanizer that treats people so poorly. Carell is just too nice of a man for this jerky demeanor to fit him in any convincing way. Carell is a good actor, but he brings too much baggage from all of his other characters to the table for the first half of this movie to work. It is also a bit hard to accept Carell and Buscemi as former classmates; the actors’ appearances make their actual age difference appear greater than it really is. The real problem, however, is Carey; he looks good for his age, but he is far too old to be playing the role of the street magician who mutilates his body as his claim to fame. This is a role that should have gone to an actor in his twenties; it is hard to believe that a guy over fifty would perform this brand of magic. It simply wasn’t believable and distracted me every time that Carey was on stage.

None of this, however, would be enough to derail a better written movie. These are all talented performers that are underserved with the story and dialogue that they are asked to deliver. For a comedy, there are just too few laughs. Some of that is a result of jokes that just don’t work as written; there are instances where the writers clearly thought that a joke was going to kill and it just sort of lays there. But often there are long stretches where it isn’t as clear that any jokes were even attempted. A comedy doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall laughs, as there needs to be time to breathe for both the audience and the story, but The Incredible Burt Wonderstone allows these pauses from the hilarity to last so long that you kind of forget that this is supposed to be a comedy. Some of the better jokes in the film are also featured in the trailer, so they lose some of their effectiveness. The pacing is also a little herky-jerky and the film is tonally inconsistent; the writers conveniently change the characters to fit the jokes that they want to tell. Burt is a jerk, until he doesn’t need to be. Anton is smart, until there is a joke to be told about him being dumb.

Some other thoughts:

  • Other thing that I didn’t really understand – Burt and Anton have been doing this gig at the hotel for the last five or ten years, but their style is forever frozen in the early 80s. It seems to me that before they were hired for the job, someone would have forced them to update their look. Their dated appearance would have made more sense if they had been doing the show longer. Then again, who can explain Vegas?
  • There were other chronology issues with Olivia Wilde, Steve Carell and her grandmother Grace. I cannot for the life of me make the math work to make any of that plot point make any sense.
  • I did enjoy the actual magic portions of the movie. Carell may have a second career for himself.
  • Steve Miller must have made some serious cash from this film – they played his song “Abracadabra” quite a bit.
  • David Copperfield has a small cameo in the film. That dude’s biggest trick is his refusal to age – I swear he looks exactly the same from when I was a kid.
  • Burt Wonderstone gives the ladies that he spends the night with a memento, which made me think about this story about Derek Jeter.
  • I’m not a Jim Carrey fan, but he’s fairly tolerable in this role. There really isn’t much to his character – his sole purpose is to serve as a foil to Burt – but it plays to Carrey’s strengths (such as they are).
  • Steve Buscemi must have tremendous self-esteem since there are quite a few jokes in this film about how unappealing his appearance is. Poor guy.
  • Lots of good people are wasted in very small parts: Gillian Jacobs (Community), Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), Sonya Eddy (Legit) and Jay Mohr all turn up for a scene or two.
  • John Francis Daley (Sam, Freaks and Geeks) has a blink-and-you-missed-it part in the film and is credited as the co-writer, which leads me to believe he should stick to acting.
  • I’m beginning to think that any film that has “Incredible” or “Amazing” in the title is trying to oversell themselves and is going to result in disappointment.
  • My faith in America is modesty restored; one of the previews before Burt Wonderstone was for The Big Wedding, an absolutely dreadful looking comedy starring Robert DeNiro, Susan Sarandon and Diane Keaton:

When the trailer ended, the audience audibly groaned. This is a good sign. And WTF to Katherine Heigl getting billing over Diane Keaton. What kind of world are we living in?

 

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a light, but ultimately harmless film. It has an interesting premise but doesn’t do much of anything with it. My goodwill toward most of the cast and a few nice moments kept the movie from being completely boring and bland, but there isn’t too much to recommend here. Definitely not worth your hard earned money to see it at the theater, but might be mildly amusing on cable. Steve Carrel and cast deserved something better.