Good start, right? But the more you like the performers featured in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the harder it is to sit back, relax and enjoy. The comedy about Las Vegas illusionists on the rocks is thin, weak and sour. The typical gags involve burnt flesh and the sight of someone pretending to crush a puppy to death. It’s not a comedy; it’s a wince-edy.
No magic here.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone serves as a reminder that everything in a film has a chance to go wrong before a film begins filming. In other words: It’s the script, stupid. This sort of comic vehicle isn’t designed to improve the world or change the way Hollywood does business; it’s simply meant to hand you a few laughs and throw in a little heart by way of its pompous, dislikable main character’s redemption. And yet with so many jokes based on pain and humiliation, without the requisite cleverness or nerve, the result is blah.
Since childhood, Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton have been partners in magic, fellow outcasts in a world they yearn to dazzle with feats of illusion taught to them by their hero, Rance Holloway (who once appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, we learn from watching one of his ’80s-era promos). They boys grow up and become a hot attraction in Las Vegas—Siegfried and Roy without the tetchy felines.
A decade later, the act’s grown stale, and Burt, a blasé Lothario played by Steve Carell, has become a terrible person. Steve Buscemi’s Anton isn’t so much a character as an embodiment of hurt feelings. They can’t stand each other. And there’s a dangerous new kid in town, a Jackass-y guerrilla performer (Jim Carrey, doing pretty much what Tom Cruise did in Rock of Ages—self-serious preening, with weirdly off-kilter timing) who gives the bloodthirsty public what it wants: violence, drills to the skull, that kind of thing.
The key to this kind of intended smart-stupid comedy, I think, is elusive. The best of Will Ferrell’s smart-stupid comedies to date (Anchorman, Blades of Glory) skipped along while pulling a straight face in their treatment of adolescent narcissists on parade. Both films leaned on strong ensembles, keeping different sorts of funny people busy and wittily deployed, complementing Ferrell’s knack for clueless, brainless, egotistical confidence.
Carell is different, and drier, but a wonderfully skillful actor. You can barely tell in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s interesting seeing Carell play a full-on louse (though, of course, a sweetheart underneath), but director Don Scardino seems to have misplaced everything he learned directing all those 30 Rock episodes. Where’s the fleet-footed throwaway material? The movie settles for slow and crude, and that combination works like an anti-charm with any sort of comedy. Nothing ignites or even intersects here. Carrey’s in his own movie, doing stand-alone stunts that never work up a head of steam. Gandolfini underplays shrewdly as a venal casino owner; Wilde, as Burt and Anton’s assistant with skills of her own, redeems what she can, where she can.
Then Alan Arkin shows up, and as I say every day of my film critic life: Thank God for Alan Arkin. Plying his trade in a retirement home, the fallen Burt finally meets his lifelong magician hero in his avuncular dotage. Arkin’s Holloway mentors Burt back to life, reconnecting him to what drew him to magic in the first place. The actor can’t save the movie. But he can save his scenes.
And with this script, written by the Horrible Bosses team of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, that really is magic.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆