The first time you open a magic kit, it really does feel like you’re on your way to becoming the next David Copperfield. When I was in grade school, I received my Harry Blackstone-approved box of magic tricks and immediately learned earth-shaking illusions: the disappearing knot, the squirting flower, the ball and three cups ruse and, most astonishing of all, instructions on how to shake a wand in such a way that it looks like it’s bending. When I got around to staging my first magic show (for my mother, who was my biggest fan and sole attendee), my best trick by far was making it seem like I ripped a piece of paper in half, when, actually, I effectively made a sound that mimicked paper tearing apart. Eventually, I learned that, for a magician, I’m a pretty good writer.
The opening scenes of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone not only establish a similar scene of a wide-eyed boy discovering his knack for magic, but also promise a better movie. When we meet little Burt and his “homely” best friend Anton as kid magicians, they’re funny and endearingly naive. After a few minutes, the movie cuts to them fully grown, playing Vegas shows and now portrayed by Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi. It made me wonder if there’s a reel missing or we’re ever going to find out what happened.
One of the film’s first problems is showing us Burt and Anton’s Vegas act; the set piece portrays a painfully dated, cornball routine. That’s fine, except the scene isn’t funny. A bigger problem is that Carrell is miscast as Wonderstone.
The story develops into a game of one-upmanship between Wonderstone and a David Blaine/Kriss Angel shock magician, hilariously played by Jim Carrey. I’m a big fan of Carrell and want to see him and Carrey in a movie, just not this one. Carrell is supposed to be playing a bitter, egomaniacal monster but his performance has no inner life. Steve Martin, a real-life magician with a gift for mixing laughs and prickly material, should have played this character.
The screenplay has some genuinely bold touches, like an extended joke about starving children in a foreign country given magic kits instead of food and water, by a magician on a humanitarian mission. But it doesn’t mix well with the formulaic, touchy-feely moments. The script has an edge but the movie is constantly softening it. The cast does its best but the whole thing panders too often to what’s safe and crowd-pleasing. It has some real darkness up its sleeve but unwisely keeps it concealed.
Carrey’s scene-stealing performance is the best reason to see the movie, as he makes this amusingly pretentious jerk an irresistible showman on and off the stage. As Wonderstone’s unlikely ally, Olivia Wilde is adorable, which is all the movie asks of her. Alan Arkin has some nice moments as Wonderstone’s mentor. James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett and Buscemi make nice impressions before they fade into the background. This might have worked as a little, independently made black comedy and not a big budget studio film.
Carrell does have one hilarious scene: after doing the same act for 10 years with the same sidekick, Wonderstone does his moldy routine solo for the first time. Watching Wonderstone struggle to perform a two-person show, with tricky stage effects, all by himself, with a stubborn determination, is a howler.
There are some good laughs but it’s too uneven to be a great comedy. Had the filmmakers tried to make the comedic equivalent of The Prestige, they could have had something. Instead, it reminded me of Death to Smoochy.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Rated PG-13 / 100 Min.