Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer whose films include National Treasure and Pirates of the Caribbean, has a formula. It goes something like this. Take a mainstream script - the hunt for missing treasure, say - and cast it with an off-center actor to give the marshmallow some texture and edge.
So it is with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a hearty helping of movie comfort food, the seventh collaboration between Bruckheimer and Mr. Live From Off-Center himself, Nicolas Cage.
Cage is Balthazar, Merlin's disciple, who seeks the wizard's direct descendant - "the Prime Merlinean" (no relation to Optimus Prime) - to help settle a 1,300-year-old grudge match.
Back in the Arthurian day, Balthazar and Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), a fellow disciple, both wooed sister disciple Veronica (Monica Bellucci). Balthazar won her heart. So the jilted Maxim joined forces with unscrupulous sorceress Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige) to unleash hell on earth.
Why would this battle between good and evil play out in contemporary Manhattan? It has something to do with the possibility that the Prime Merlinean is an NYU physics nerd, the helium-voiced Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel). And maybe with the fact that the souls of Merlin's disciples are imprisoned inside vessels (nesting dolls, amphoras) and are unsprung in New York.
Stringy-haired, bleary-eyed, and genially unstrung, Cage's Balthazar resembles 1950s-era Howard Hughes in a cowhide trenchcoat. If Balthazar needs to get somewhere fast, he saddles up a gargoyle on the Chrysler Building and brings it to life. Finally, his performance is as generic as the special effects. Cage hasn't lost his edge. But here he's PG, not edgy.
Baruchel, the wiry, shock-haired actor of She's Out of My League, charms in the title role, putting his own spin on perfunctory dialogue. His eyebrows look like twin question marks, lending him a comically quizzical look that translates, "Am I really expected to do a live-action version of Mickey Mouse's dance with the overzealous brooms from Fantasia?"
The answer is yes. Baruchel's Dave has a hot date with the obligatory Bruckheimer blonde, Becky (Teresa Palmer), and needs to tidy his squalid laboratory/apartment before she arrives. So, he uses his newly discovered powers to order the brooms to do the dishes and floors.
Like the rest of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, this sequence is familiar and mildly amusing. It also serves to justify the film's title. In its part and on the whole, the movie is more Cheez Whiz than wizardly.