The Just Credible Burt Wonderstone
DIRECTED BY DON SCARDINO/2013
Oh how years ago in days of old, when magic filled the airwaves. Penn & Teller, Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield all vying to amaze us with sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors, rabbit and hat. Then came the new wave of self-mutilating mentalists called “street magicians.” These men, most notably David Blaine and Chriss Angel, eschewed the pomp of traditional illusionists for the mystique and mascara of the dark arts. It was the death defying stunts of Houdini updated with the visceral sensibilities of Jackass. Magic was no longer about sawing ladies in half, but about the magician himself enduring freakish pain. It was tantric masochism publicly displayed on burnt Las Vegas sidewalks.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone lampoons these magic wars in a manner not completely unlike Anchorman. It’s the early or late 2000s—the movie isn’t sure whether it exists a decade after Johnny Carson or during the Twitter era—and Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), a staple of the Las Vegas strip, performs nightly at the Aztec Casino. He and his life-long magic partner and friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) perform their staid yet well-attended show with flair and confidence. Wonderstone, taking his fame and fortune for granted, brashly fires a female stage assistant and hires Jane (Olivia Wilde) in her place. The only requirements for the job: good looks and the ability to tolerate Wonderstone’s wandering hands. He is a sexist, piggy, little jerk and you know his comeuppance is just around the bend
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a pleasant movie. It doesn’t ask very much of the audience and doesn’t give very much in return.
That comeuppance comes in the form of street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Sure, the other illusionists can pull a quarter out from behind your ear, but how many can excise a playing card from their cheek? Gray’s edgy performances draw the crowds away from the Aztec Casino, which leaves Burt and Anton scrambling to come up with an innovative stunt of their own. The stunt goes wrong; Burt blames Anton; the casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) fires them both. Burt then begins his journey of redemption, falling back on the goodwill of his stage assistant Jane. When Burt isn’t peppering Jane with sexual advances, he’s performing parlor tricks at a nursing home. Here he serendipitously meets Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin), the original inspiration for his boyhood enchantment with magic. Rance helps Burt rediscover his sense of wonder and puts him on the path back to the big stage.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a pleasant movie. It doesn’t ask very much of the audience and doesn’t give very much in return. There are a few guffaw-worthy scenes and plenty that will leave you grinning at least. But with such a spectacular playbill as Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin, I’m still disappointed that I’m not in a hospital bed recovering from a life-threatening case of the yuk-yuks. The punched-up script misses plenty of opportunities for laughs and secondary characters often seem to just stand there not knowing what to do with themselves.
Carrey and Arkin steal every scene their in, but Carell can’t pull off the Ron Burgundy level of jerkiness required for his journey to be interesting or satisfying. Olivia Wilde wanders around like she got lost on the set, mostly because her role just calls for her to be pretty and to fall in love with Carell’s character before the end of the movie. James Gandolfini as hotel owner Doug Munny is a walking stereotype that gets less amusing as the movie wears on. As a satire on magicians, Wonderstone is late to the party that G.O.B. Bluth has been hosting for nearly a decade now. As a family comedy, its moral lessons are obscured by crude jokes and dark themes.
If you’re starved for a comedy, Burt might tide you over. If you’re just looking for a pleasant way to pass a hundred minutes, you won’t find much better company than Steve, Steve, Jim and Alan. I really wanted to like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone more, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had already seen this trick a million times. Nothing really incredible here at all.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE opened in theaters March 15th, 2013. I would advise against showing it to young children since there is sexual humor and scary, easily imitatable violence.