The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows a blueprint treaded by every Will Ferrell comedy from the early 2000s. That is to say, it’s brimmed with sight gags, absurd physical comedy and follows the riches to rags to redemption story of a pompous nitwit. Unfortunately, it’s also predictable, far too safe given its promising concept, and frankly, about five years behind the curve. Nevertheless, in a barren movie landscape, it works as a pleasant diversion that gives Steve Carell and Jim Carrey the opportunity to let loose with their brand of physical comedy, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.
Carell plays the titular Burt Wonderstone, an egoistic, misogynistic buffoon who forms one half of a Siegfried and Roy-esque Las Vegas magic duo alongside nebbish childhood buddy Anton (Steve Buscemi). Like their real-world counterparts, Burt & Anton’s shows are an over-the-top mix of flamboyance, extravagance and cheesiness – complete with spray-tans, flowing bleach-blonde hair and chest-bearing, V-neck sequined outfits. Despite their off-stage squabbles – most arising from Burt’s continual chiding of Anton, their act remains Vegas’ top show for a decade.
That is until Steve Gray (Carrey) hits the streets of Vegas. A tattooed, elf-haired cross between David Blaine and Criss Angel, Gray is a bigger nutcase than Burt. Dubbing himself the “Mind Rapist,” Gray’s act includes things like holding his urine for days, sleeping on hot coals, hammering nails into his skull and other preposterous acts of self-mutilation and torture. Unsurprisingly, the crowd goes nuts for his act, leaving Burt and Anton’s show in the dust. With finances dwindling, their casino boss Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), forces them to either adapt to the changing times or close shop. But with Burt’s refusal to change, things are about to get messy. And boy does it ever!
The theatrical world of magic and its secretive nature is ripe for cinema but barring Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, no other Hollywood film has been successful in capturing the mystic, awe and competitive nature of the business. The central conceit of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a comedic, satirical take on the modern day rivalry of magicians, is a fascinating one, especially given that Steve Carell and Jim Carrey are the stars playing the rivals. It’s too bad then that director Don Scardino (30 Rock) and screenwriters Jonathan S. Goldstein & John Francis Daley aren’t completely up to the task.
Going by the numerous references to real-world counterparts, there’s reason to believe Scardino and his team intended Wonderstone to be a take on the magician world on the level of an Anchorman or a Zoolander, comedies that simultaneously poke fun at and provide surprising insight into their subject’s industries. Instead, they waste the opportunity by settling on a routine plot rooted in Hollywood conventionality wherein the selfish protagonist learns how to be a good man and a team player. It also falters by not delivering on potentially, its biggest gimmick – denying its two biggest stars enough screen time opposite each other. Carell and Carrey appear together in just three scenes – and only one of those has a genuine laugh-out-loud gag.
Incidentally, that gag, which involves Carrey performing a hilarious bit of levitation, may be the film’s best bit of physical comedy – a style that both stars excel at and is the only reason why the movie manages to get by. Burt Wonderstone may not go down as one of Carell’s most memorable characters but his charisma and aptitude at playing lovable losers (in this case – an egoistic chauvinistic loser) keeps us invested in him. Buscemi, who rarely gets to play comedy these days because of his fulltime gig on HBO’s mesmerizing Boardwalk Empire, also gets a couple of moments (a joke with his character bringing gifts to starving children in Asia is priceless) whereas Olivia Wilde, who at some point plays assistant to both Burt and Gray, brings weight to a thinly-written role that can be whittled down to “love interest.”
It may be Carell’s movie but it’s Carrey who steals it. Having spent the better part of the last decade appearing in family comedies and serious dramas, the gifted actor hasn’t played such an outrageous character since his turn as Count Olaf in 2004’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. And even though Gray is a one-note creation, Carrey still manages to astutely capture the personas of “magicians” like Angel and Blaine, simultaneously lampooning and roasting their pretentious antics. Alas, his brilliant turn as Gray is only a supporting player in a middling comedy that could have used more of him.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
Directed by: Don Scardino
Written by: Jonathan S. Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Starring: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde
Rated: PG-13 (for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)