By Gary Dowell
There is a lot of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand involved with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Don Scardino’s comedy about the rise, fall, and re-invention of a vain and supercilious stage magician. Unfortunately, most of it is used to dress up an underdone story.
The story begins with a quick flashback to 1982, where we’re introduced to a 10-year-old Albert (Mason Cook), a lonely, bullied latch-key kid determined to make people love him. Teaming up with fellow outcast Anthony (Luke Ivanek), the two decide to become professional magicians.
Flash forward to the present, where Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are on the tail end of a ten-year stretch in their own theater on the Las Vegas Strip. The act has grown stale, however; each night, they don their sequined velvet costumes, recite the same tired one-liners, and perform the same tricks. (Imagine a straight Siegfried and Roy without the animals, energy, or originality and you get the idea.) Anton wants to update the act, but a complacent Burt is content to coast.
Meanwhile, arrogant street magician/endurance artist Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is making a name for himself via a series of stunts and self-injury illusions that are more masochistic than they are magical. As far as Burt is concerned, Gray — who promotes himself via a reality show titled The Brain Rapist — is to the magic world what extreme sports are to the Olympics.
However, Gray’s antics and Burt & Anton’s flagging box office catches the attention of the duo’s boss, mega-wealthy hotel-casino magnate Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who demands they upgrade their act. Instead, he gets an acrimonious break-up after their attempt to imitate Gray goes awry.
Cue the comeback story in which Burt hits rock bottom by being reduced to performing at Big Lots! stores and retirement homes, learns humility, finds love via the assistant (Olivia Wilde) whose name he could never remember, rediscovers his passion for his craft via a mentor (Alan Arkin), and renews his friendship with his partner.
It’s a well-worn tale, one we’ve all seen so many times that we know the plot points by heart. The script, by Horrible Bosses writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is uninspired in terms of both story and gags, the latter of which are vital for this kind of goofball comedy. Surprisingly, for a movie about feuding prestidigitators it keeps the magical one-upmanship to a minimum, and the many of the illusions is does rely on are disappointingly old hat — with the exception of Burt & Anton’s trademark “The Hangman” illusion, which is slickly pulled off in-camera with a little bit of cheating.
The incredibly likable Carell manages the heretofore unthinkable by playing a thoroughly unlikable Wonderstone, a man who beds a different woman every night but only after they sign a standard release form. Buscemi is fun as the sidekick who’s so damned optimistic that it’s mind-boggling (which makes his inevitable “screw you” eruption all the funnier), but he and Wilde are confined by the limited script. Ultimately it’s Carrey who generates the most laughs as the Criss Angel/David Blaine hybrid who would have us believe he walks on water as well as hot coals, while Arkin steal scenes like cat burglar. The thing is, their characters are all very one-note.
The only truly mind-blowing feat Burt Wonderstone pulls off is how quickly it disappears from memory after the closing credits roll. Now you see it, now you don’t.