The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is exactly the movie you’d expect from Steve Carell, the writers of Horrible Bosses, and a TV director making his big screen debut. There are funny moments throughout and it’s a big glossy production that hits all the expected notes before fading to black at this the right time. However, it’s also meets those expectations to the point of reaching wild heights of predictable dullness. The world of professional magicians might be just silly enough to warrant parody, but this one is so limp and out of date that it never really takes advantage of the subject matter. There’s a far better movie that could have been made with this exact premise and cast that went for Anchorman-style inspired cartoon anarchy with little time for logic or emotion. Unfortunately Burt Wonderstone quickly falls into a “showbiz-asshole-gets-redeemed/the girl” arc so tedious that it sucks away any sense of subversive joy the comic minds involved delivered almost instantly.
Steve Carell stars as an absurdly glitzy and bare-chested Vegas magician stuck out of time. He discovered magic as an awkward wee lad and dedicated his life to pursuing his showbiz dreams with a childhood partner in crime played by Steve Buscemi. An opening montage shows their rise to illusionist power, but by the time the plot kicks into gear Carell has settled into the comedy type of the abrasive a-hole who takes all of his success for granted. He lives for ridiculous haircuts, gaudy Vegas penthouse privileges, and bedding a beautiful audience assistant night after night. He’s lost any love of magic and his audiences dwindle accordingly. You see, folks are tired of the old Vegas illusions. Now they’re into gothic street magicians like Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced Criss Angel riff who does “tricks” liking hammering nails into wood with his face. Carell’s Vegas boss James Gandolfini fires his star duo after getting tired of the douchebaggery. The lifelong duo split up and Carell suffers a series of humiliations before ending up performing tricks in a Vegas retirement home for lunch scraps. It seems like things couldn’t get any worse. But could redemption possibly come in Carell making friends with his childhood magic idol Alan Arkin who just happens to live in the retirement home or maybe by making love with his former assistant/magician hopeful Olivia Wilde? Hey, how about both? Wouldn’t that be extra satisfying?
The answer is sadly “no.” There are some nice laughs found in the first 45 minutes or so as Carell plays Ron Burgundy-lite while putting on some fairly funny big magic act parodies. Unfortunately like most mainstream comedies of this type, the movie is then derailed for about half an hour to become touchy-feely emotional while teaching the audience lessons about being humble, the importance of friends, and how to fall in love. It’s an irritating trend that’s been part of comedy screenwriting for decades and manages to suck all of the fun out of Burt Wonderstone rather than supplementing it. In particular, the love story between Wilde and Carell grinds the movie to a halt every 10-15 minutes. She has no character beyond being beautiful and they share no chemistry beyond what screenwriting contrivance demands (It’s even a little creepy given visible the age difference). The redemption arc between Carell and Arkin is no better and it feels like a waste of Arkin’s comedic chops to cram him into such a meaningless role. Some of the performances do at least deliver on the trailer. Carell might not have the surreal sensibility necessary to nail a role clearly designed for Will Ferrell, but he is a talent and it’s always nice to see him go broad rather than playing another one of those sad middle aged guy roles that used to go to Bill Murray. Jim Carrey is actually the highlight of the movie, mugging/flailing for the camera like it’s 1995 again and appearing in just the right number of scenes before his shtick gets boring. As for Gandolfini and Buscemi, well it’s just nice to see them be funny again.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a thoroughly average Hollywood comedy. All the faults are true of that genre as a whole. TV-directing veteran Don Scardino makes no attempt to do anything beyond the norm and as a result, he should get a modest hit for his efforts. The Horrible Bosses screenwriting team of Jonathan Goldstein and Freaks and Geeks star John Francis Daley repeat the comedic formula of that unexpected hit exactly: when every scene starts you see the joke coming, it happens, it’s funny, and then they repeat that joke till it’s not funny and move onto the next scene. Unless you like this brand of glossy comedy because it always tells you exactly when and why to laugh, the whole thing gets rather boring rather quickly. After twenty minutes, things only really perk up with Jim Carrey appears on screen and even then he’s parodying a type of magician who went out of style about five years ago. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will never be accused of being a comedy classic, nor could you even pretend that the jokes are timely. However, for one glorious weekend it will be the number one comedy in the country before completely disappearing. I suppose that’s all anyone involved with the production hoped for and shame on us viewers for expecting anything more. Like it or not, this is what the modern Hollywood comedy is, folks. Let’s just hope that someone shakes up the formula again soon.