Do you remember how old you were when you saw and were amazed by a great magician (live or on TV) for the very first time? Of course you don’t. As with Creme de Menthe and handjobs, the awe surrounding your first exposure to the world of magic quickly fades when you realize that the reality behind the promised wonder is far less exciting than you thought. That and there are far better alternatives, too.
But movies about magic are a different beast all together. Not only can they use additional trickery like editing and special effects to impress viewers, they can also add a narrative that explores the power of illusion in our lives. Think The Prestige, where ambition leads to an illusory success. Think Penn & Teller Get Killed, where illusions are used to comment on societal gullibility.
Or, as in the case of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, magic can be used as an inconsequential backdrop for mediocre comedy.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are Las Vegas headliners whose show has been a mainstay for over a decade. It’s a mix of flamboyant costumes, mild banter and traditional tricks, but their greatest illusion is convincing people that the two are still best friends. In reality the pair have come to despise each other due mostly to Wonderstone’s selfish and prickish ways, and the friction only grows when a street magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) begins shocking audiences with his own brand of magic and self-mutilation. Their audience dwindles, they’re kicked to the curb by the hotel owner (James Gandolfini), and they go their separate ways.
What follows is essentially Wonderstone’s generic journey towards being a nicer guy. In addition to being a jerk towards Marvelton he’s also an unrepentant womanizer, but faced with a world that no longer cares for or about him he’s forced to come to some fast realizations. We’ve seen this all before, and like a bad levitation trick we can almost see the wires working the story and character beats as it moves toward the inevitable and obvious conclusion.
Carell is fine here, but he rarely stops playing the “character” long enough to glimpse any depth or humanity. Buscemi gets far too little screen time, but he manages some real laughs thanks in part to his dry delivery. They same goes for Carrey, who brings some vitality to someone who’s essentially a riff on Criss Angel. Olivia Wilde plays an assistant and aspiring magician, and while she also has too little to do she continues to build on her fantastic turn in Butter that highlighted a strong sense of comedic timing and attitude. (Check out the upcoming Drinking Buddies for a film that takes full advantage of all Wilde has to offer.)
The script by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein seems content in letting comedic talents deliver minor jokes without worrying about character depth or any real degree of emotion. Attempts to make Wonderstone more likable are ultimately unconvincing and empty, but the film keeps moving anyway. Carell and director Don Scardino are equally culpable, though, as they allow Wonderstone to be played consistently and boldly for comedic purposes, making it impossible for him to become legitimately empathetic when the time comes. A lighter tone with the character, and maybe more time spent with Buscemi, Wilde and even Carrey might have helped.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is okay, and odds are you’ll find a few chuckles within, but it’s ultimately a waste of almost everyone’s talent. Expect it to disappear from theaters right before your eyes… within a few weeks obviously.
The Upside: More than a few laughs; Olivia Wilde’s wit is allowed some time to shine; Gillian Jacobs appears briefly
The Downside: Characters are thinly drawn; story’s emotional content is weak; the laughs aren’t all that frequent or memorable
On the Side: Sarah Silverman, Judy Greer and Jessica Biel were all considered for the role that eventually went to Olivia Wilde