Films like “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige” use magic as a vehicle for suspense and intrigue, but Don Scardino's comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” reminds us that this trade doesn't need to be taken so seriously. In Scardino's movie, a magician's calling isn't to fool you; it's to inspire your childlike sense of awe and spark your imagination. This gooey idea is one that the picture sets up right in its beginning and continues to reinforce throughout.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” opens in the early 80s and focuses on young Burt and Anton, two social outcasts who discover the thrill of performing magic together. Quickly the film fast forwards to their adult years where Burt and Anton’s grown selves, portrayed by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, impress a Las Vegas mogul Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), landing them an exclusive performance deal at his hotel.
Again the movie jumps ahead, to the present day, where Burt and Anton are still performing the same tired act, complete with gaudy sequinned costumes and awkward dance moves set to Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra.” Although Burt and Anton can still pack in the crowds, they’ve lost their passion and creativity, plus they go through assistants weekly and bicker constantly. Their fragile veneer of happiness crumbles, when a new street magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) shows up on the Vegas strip, stealing away patrons with the intense spectacle of his masochistic tricks.
What comes next is expected. The friends have a serious falling out, and Burt is sent hurtling on a downward spiral toward his amusing personal rock bottom. With some help from his retired childhood idol (Alan Arkin) and former assistant/aspiring magician (Olivia Wilde), Burt realizes the error of his ways and trains himself to climb back to the top.
Burt Wonderstone isn’t the most outrageous or depressing sad sack character we’ve seen Steve Carell play to-date, but he is certainly the most arrogant. For a good portion of the film Burt is such a womanizing, unlikable ass that’s hard to feel sorry for him. Gradually he starts to snap out of his self-involved trance and convinces you to care about him. Carell’s ridiculous buffoon act is starting to become a bit tired though.
Despite Carell’s leading man status, a great deal of pleasure in this movie comes from its entertaining supporting performances by Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin, and Jay Mohr in a tiny, but memorable part as a schlubby comedian/magician. As Burt’s rival, Jim Carrey channels his trademark melodramatic madcap energy in the role of anarchist magician/Criss Angel wannabe Steve Gray. Without a doubt though, Alan Arkin’s crotchety Rance Halloway steals the show with his biting sarcasm and astounding magic tricks.
The screenwriters behind “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” are Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (of Freaks and Geeks fame), the same team responsible for the 2011 comedy “Horrible Bosses.” Similar to their prior effort, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is funnier than you would expect, but doesn’t quite reach the levels of hilarity that you’re hoping for. At least Goldstein and Daley don’t talk down to you with potty humor; they respect your intelligence by sticking to middlebrow jokes.
The other consolation is that the film has a heartwarming story about being thankful for your friends and loving your job. Arkin’s character especially stresses that it’s important to have passion for what you do, and the day that things become rote is the one you should walk away. That’s practical career advice we could all follow no matter what path we’ve chosen.
My Grade: B