Is the new hit-and-miss comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a hard-edged satire of puffed-up egos and easily mocked magicians or is it a heartwarming comedy about a selfish man who is forced to wake up when he suddenly falls on hard times?
Because the film, directed by TV veteran and first-time feature film director Don Scardino, commits fully to neither, it ends up being a lukewarm, occasionally funny movie based around a couple of very funny set pieces.
Luckily, it stars ample comedic talent, with Steve Carell and Jim Carrey as dueling Las Vegas magicians. Burt Wonderstone (Carell), along with his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) represent the David Copperfield/Lance Burton style of traditional Vegas magic. Their show is full of big dramatic flourishes and even bigger props, with a dash of stinky lounge-singer cheese.
But they are threatened by Steve Gray (Carrey), a Criss Angel/David Blaine mindmeld, whose brand of shock-value street magic is quickly turning Burt and Anton into relics on the Strip. At first, Carell is going for a level of commitment to pure stupidity and one-sightedness that rivals Ben Stiller in Zoolander, a movie that gradually found an audience for its so-stupid-its-clever schtick on home video. This kind of abrasiveness is off-putting, so it’s no surprise that it isn’t too long before Wonderstone the character does a complete 180.
Everything that happens after The Incredible Burt Wonderstone lets its abrasive character off the hook is completely predictable, but movies with this kind of pervasive silliness don’t exist for their unpredictable plot lines — in fact they rely on predictability. This is another one of those modern comedies that mines laughs from putting its actors in outrageous situations, strung together by the loosest of threads.
Consequently, when Carell sheds his clueless, prickly nature, the film actually does become more likeable. But that’s not necessarily a compliment — it just means that the satire wasn’t really all that focused in the first place.
Carrey is a scene-stealer, Buscemi exudes warmth, and Carell has to turn on a dime, so his performance is uneven at best. There’s even a subplot with an elderly magician (Alan Arkin) and an uncomfortable romance (with Olivia Wilde) shoehorned in there, but the only thing worth remembering are a couple of the magic-trick scenes. The best one happens at the end of the film, setting up a funny end-credit sequence.
A consistent tone and strategy would have served the picture better. That was probably difficult since Chad Kultgen sold the original story way back in 2006, it was rewritten by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein in 2010, rumors of some tinkering by Jason Reitman are abound, and someone named Tyler Mitchell also has his name in the writing credits.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has its share of fleeting laughs, so its not altogether unsuccessful, but it may just go down in history as a huge missed opportunity.