Film Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

While sticking to a fairly standard mainstream comedy story arc, this sturdy Steve Carell vehicle still serves up enough dark, edgy humor—most of it involving Jim Carrey—to also appeal to hipper sensibilities.

Unless you count Mickey Mouse in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia, Hollywood has never produced a classic comedy about magicians. The Incredible Burt Wonderstsone doesn’t change that—but it is a consistently entertaining diversion, with a gifted cast that puts a fresh spin on even the most tried-and-true crowd-pleaser plot developments.

As befits a top-billed star who plays the title character, Steve Carell gets most of the time in the spotlight, as Incredible Burt, the alpha half of a popular Las Vegas magic duo. In their tacky maroon tuxedos and blown-out, flowing hair, Burt and best-friend-since-geeky-childhood Anton (Steve Buscemi) are the Siegfried and Roy of the magic world. And though their cornball stage act is designed to feature them equally, Burt is the one with the plunging v-neck shirt that bares most of his salon-tanned chest. He’s also the one who gets to squeeze into the always popular sword-trick box with stunning new assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde, getting a chance to show her funny side). Is this imbalance of power the reason the boys aren’t getting along offstage? Or is it just that they’re sick of going through the motions of a routine that hasn’t changed much in three decades?

When a title character starts out in a movie on top of his world, there’s nowhere he can go but down. And the graffiti is on the wall for Burt (and Anton), as soon as Jim Carrey enters the picture, as the tattooed, goateed, Fabio-haired street magician Steve Gray, whose cable-TV shows consist of public acts of self-mutilation and torture—usually performed quite literally in the middle of the street. Gray’s whole thing is pushing the envelope until it rips: How long can he stare without blinking, even in the face of pepper spray? How long can he hold his urine, before his kidneys fail? How long can he lie on a bed of hot coals, while smelling like barbecue? Next to Steve Gray’s guerrilla theatrics, Burt and Anton look like yesterday’s lounge act.

As if he needs to keep topping himself, Gray’s stunts just get progressively, gleefully more disgusting—and Carrey plays this for all it’s worth, sending up our pop culture’s ever-more ghoulish taste for ever-more sensationalistic behavior, but also Carrey’s own penchant for loud, mugging, onscreen acting out. And yet even when he’s trading on his patented shtick, Carrey somehow does so without repeating himself. That’s kind of what he’s been doing his whole career, and he’s getting better and better at it.

Carrey is not so much a co-star as a featured performer here. Think of him as a Very Special Guest Star. His screen time is limited to maybe half a dozen scenes of substance—but every time he pops up onscreen, he stops the show. In a good way.
But even when it’s not blessed by Carrey’s commanding presence, the film ambles along amusingly enough, carried mostly by Carell, whose self-absorbed Burt undergoes a time-honored cinematic fall from grace—which starts when he and Anton attempt an ill-considered How-Long-Can-We-Stay-in-This-Glass-Box-in-Mid-Air-in-the-Hot-Desert-Sun stunt, and then spirals downward, as the two pals split and go their separate ways. While Anton heads off to Third World jungles to charitably distribute magic-act props to villagers who need food and water, Burt tries to reinvent himself as a solo act—an increasingly desperate job search that begins with unreturned phone calls from Steve Wynn and ends with Burt doing card tricks for sleepy seniors at a retirement home.

But just when we’re starting to feel that Burt’s free-fall is getting old, the movie
gets a boost in the form of Alan Arkin—as the long-forgotten legend among magicians who inspired Burt as a child. From the moment he heckles Burt from the crowd at the old-folks’ home, Arkin’s crustily cynical Rance Holloway steals every scene he’s in—unless that scene also happens to include Jim Carrey.

That Carell isn’t blown off the screen by the tag team of Carrey and Arkin is a testament to his own sure-footed, low-key-verging-on-deadpan performance, in a role that early on establishes him as a caricature of puffed-up showmanship, then puts him through a typical Hollywood humanization, as Burt gets humbled and enlightened by his relatively brief career slump. That this humanization also includes a blossoming romance with Wilde’s impossibly gorgeous Jane was, of course, inevitable.

Yet even when this movie is at its most formulaic, it always manages to keep its characters in character. After all, it’s easier to believe that a fatuous, self-involved, fallen-from-grace Vegas showman could get the beautiful girl, if said girl had a childhood dream of becoming a magician. The screenwriters were savvy enough to include an early scene in which Jane talks about her lifelong illusionist aspirations. At first that seems like a barely noteworthy character shading; by the end, it’s a big reason Jane’s attraction to Burt makes any sense. That’s not the kind of touch that makes a movie a classic—but it sure doesn’t hurt this one’s appeal.