“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the new film starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey, resolves that issue fairly successfully. It pokes fun at the absolutely ridiculous aspect of big Las Vegas-style magic shows, but it also demonstrates why so many people love well-executed sleight-of-hand tricks: they remind us of childhood, when the world was an enchanted place full of promise and possibility.
Carell plays the titular Burt Wonderstone, a once-iconic Vegas magician whose overinflated ego has caused his show to become stale and repetitive. It has also alienated him from his partner and lifelong friend, Anton Marvelton (Buscemi). (And in case you’re wondering, yes, those are their stage names.) The illusions the two learned as kids to cope with bullying are now used as a sleazy way for Burt to mechanically seduce a different ditzy audience member every night.
He’s also loathed by his associate, Jane (Wilde), the latest in a very long line of lovely assistants. She respects his talent and his once-evident creativity, but working with her idol has put a stop to her admiration. Soon, the show’s ticket sales drop so precipitously that casino magnate Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) fires everybody and begins his search for the next big thing.
That rising superstar is Steve Gray (Carrey), a grimy street magician who foregoes traditional illusions for extreme, gross-out stunts. He’s a barely disguised clone of Criss Angel or David Blaine, made abundantly clear by the film’s opinion that he’s a showboating cynic who doesn’t have a love for “real” magic. Still, he gets a ton of attention from tourists and that’s what makes money in Vegas.
If Wonderstone is going to reclaim his title as the best in the business, he’s got a lot of work to do. He needs to get his ego in check, make amends with everyone he’s hurt, rediscover his love of magic and defeat Gray. A pretty tall order, but he’s up to the challenge — especially once his childhood hero, veteran magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), agrees to help.
Despite its atrocious trailer, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a decent comedy that provides a lot of laughs and a surprising amount of heart. The problem is that the main character is such a detestable person for the first 50 minutes that it’s hard to care what happens to him in the second half. We see Wonderstone penniless, homeless, abandoned by his friends and facing a future with absolutely no job prospects, and I had absolutely no sympathy for him whatsoever. He deserves everything that happens to him.
Kudos to Carell for making the guy as unlikable as possible, but it means that the only reason I was happy he ultimately prevails (spoilers, I guess?) is because it allows the characters whose lives he ruined a chance to return to the spotlight. Carrey is also funny (I can’t remember the last time I typed that) in a supporting role that’s being blown out of proportion by the movie’s marketing. He manages to play a bigger jerk than Wonderstone somehow, essentially making Gray the villain by default.
Those guys are good, but it’s Wilde and Arkin who end up delivering the funniest performances in the flick. I think a lot of people underestimate Wilde’s acting ability and comedic timing because of her staggering good looks (cry me a river, I know), but her terrific deadpan is used to great effect here. As pretty much the only sane character in the movie, she keeps everything from getting too cartoonish.
Arkin continues to do his “cranky old man” routine that most films seem to cast him for nowadays (i.e., his Oscar nod for “Argo”). But the personality he instills in the grizzled magician and his substantial chemistry with Carell make the movie far more poignant than it has any right to be.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” isn’t anywhere near the top of Carell’s ever-growing filmography, but it’s a funny and often sweet flick that radiates a genuine love of magic. In this lackluster spring season, that makes it worth recommending. Well, for a matinee at least.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language.