‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ Review
It's a little weird that a movie about the dangers of doing something so long that it becomes rote and stale is, at times, incredibly rote and stale. Write what you know, I guess; 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' has a couple big laughs, a few small laughs, and a whole lot of going through the Hollywood mainstream comedy motions. As a movie, it's a mess; in select moments, it's occasionally hilarious. It's probably best appreciated as a playlist of highlight clips on YouTube.
Picked on by bullies, ignored by an absentee mother (who gives him a box of cake mix and instructions how to bake it for his birthday), young Burt (Mason Cook) uses magic as his escape from reality. He also uses it to make his one friend, another teen outcast named Anton. Alone together, they obsess over Burt's magic kit, learning all of its tricks, and inventing a few of their own. A couple decades later, the best friends are partners in a less-ethnic, less-tigery Siegfried & Roy-style Las Vegas magic show, but for reasons that are never fully explained, the sweet, lonely kid Burt grows into the bitter, oafish, narcissistic, borderline delusional adult Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell). Abusive to the adult Anton (Steve Buscemi) and their assistants (including Olivia Wilde, who's always dreamed of becoming a magician, because God forbid there isn't some schmaltz in this thing somewhere), he's oblivious to the fact that his act and his chest-baring sequined jumpsuits are both hopelessly dated.
That becomes a problem when a street magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) starts hanging around on The Strip, shocking audiences with his cutting edge tricks and weirdly violent stunts. Burt and Anton's casino baron boss (James Gandolfini), warns the team that they're old and Steve is new -- and people love what's new. Audiences for Burt and Anton's show start to thin out. The abuse and in-fighting get worse. The two old friends break up, then get fired, and Burt has to start over from scratch.
The 51-year-old Carrey is way too old to play the new anything to the 50-year-old Carell, but director (and '30 Rock' veteran) Don Scardino didn't hire Carrey for his youth; he hired him for his swaggering comic insanity. On that front, Carrey delivers, with a rubber-faced performance that harkens back to the days of 'Ace Ventura' and 'The Mask.' Gray's magic tricks are more like masochistic dares: he holds his urine for days on end or drives a nail into a table with his head, and Carrey's unrestrained mania brings just the right tinge of madness to the illusions. In limited screentime, he's fantastic.
Carell, on the other hand, flounders desperately to turn Burt into more than a collection of random personality traits. In one scene he's a horndog, in the next he's a moron, in the next, he's falling in love with Wilde's Jane. It's like his entire character has been reverse engineered from the comedic set pieces Scardino and screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein wanted to throw him into, and the Ron Burgundy-ish arc from selfish jerk to selfless hero they want to take him on. Even worse, Carell never generates any sort of comedic chemistry with Buscemi no matter how many times the movie mentions their "magical friendship."
Some of 'Burt Wonderstone's' magic-related gags are good -- and Alan Arkin draws a few laughs as Rance Holloway, Burt's retired magician idol -- but with the exception of Carrey's Steve Gray, the characters are totally forgettable. After Burt has fallen on hard times, he meets Rance at a Las Vegas nursing home and they become friends. Burt stopped performing magic for anything except the money and the women a long time ago. Rance reminds him why he started in the first place: to feel a sense of awe and wonder, to believe, even for a fleeting moment, that anything in the world is possible. Audiences for 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' will learn first-hand just how rare those transcendent moments of grace really are.
'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' opens in theaters on March 15.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’