“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a comedy about magicians without much magic to it.
Steve Carell plays the title character, a Las Vegas headliner with an ego bigger than his billboard on the Strip, someone who must learn humility before finding a happy ending. Five years ago this could have been a Will Ferrell movie; 10 years ago it could have been a Jim Carrey movie (coincidentally or not, Carrey has a key supporting role as a rival magician).
Burt shares an act with his boyhood pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), who is either the Roy to his Siegfried or the Siegfried to his Roy, in case there’s a difference. Their act is billed as “A Magical Friendship,” which clues us into the major theme. “Burt Wonderstone” has the kind of script that makes sure the audience comprehends every bit of subtext.
Burt and Anton have ruled the Strip for 10 years, but their friendship has frayed, mostly because Burt has become so insufferably big-headed that he has a consent form for his groupies to sign. This fragmentation of their relationship coincides with the arrival of “guerilla” street magician Steve Gray, played by a heavily tattooed Carrey.
Carrey’s character is obviously modeled on Criss Angel, whose “Mindfreak” slogan has been switched to “Brain Rapist,” a joke more cringe-inducing than funny. Gray doesn’t perform magic so much as maim himself in public for the sake of his highly rated cable program.
Grey’s popularity puts pressure on Burt and Anton to update their act. They attempt a publicity stunt that Burt fouls up so horribly that Anton finally quits. Unable to maintain the act as a solo artist, Burt bottoms out and finds work demonstrating Bounty paper towels at a Big Lots (product placement is practically integrated into the plot) before landing a gig entertaining seniors at a retirement home.
Does any of this sound familiar? The egomaniacal hero so convinced of his own glory that he drives away the best friend that helped him make it to the top? The arrival of an even more obnoxious rival? The hero rediscovering his passion after a series of humiliating setbacks? These are the basic building blocks of “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (see, I told you this could have been a Will Ferrell movie.)
The “Burt Wonderstone” script is credited to Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who became hot comedy writers thanks to “Horrible Bosses.” For “Burt Wonderstone” they took on the arduous task of going through the “Talledega Nights” script, crossing out all references to NASCAR and replacing them with references to magic.
“Talledega Nights” is awfully funny, one of Ferrell’s best. “Burt Wonderstone” is only intermittently funny. You can’t put such talented comedians as Carell, Carey and Alan Arkin (who plays a veteran magician who inspired Carell’s career) in a movie and not get any laughs. Most of the time, the laughs come not from the material but how the cast delivers it.
Characterization is random. The film opens with the overused device of introducing the hero as a child, showing how outcasts Burt and Anton bonded over magic in their grade-school cafeteria in 1982 (and by the way, if Carell and Buscemi were grade-schoolers in 1982, their ability to manipulate the aging process is indeed magical). We are left to wonder how such a sweet kid could grow up to be such a colossal jerk. Sure, people change over time, but this transformation happened only because there wouldn’t be a movie without it.
Also, through most of the story Carrey’s character exists as a weirdo on the sidelines with no interest in Burt and his imploding career. Then, out of nowhere, he decides to heckle and one up Burt as he performs a lowly gig at a child’s birthday party.
And then there is Olivia Wilde’s character, a magician’s assistant who seems to have been inserted into the fourth or fifth draft of the script because the studio wanted more sex appeal. Little she does makes sense. She continues to offer Burt moral support even though she can’t stand him, then coincidentally reappears when he is ready to redeem himself. It doesn’t help that Wilde has beautiful eyes but no personality and amounts to a gorgeous dead zone whenever she appears.
Director Don Scardino is a veteran of sitcoms, “30 Rock” in particular, with little experience in feature films. It shows. He hauls out a montage sequence before the movie is five minutes old. Scardino does present a few brilliant sight gags, but the commercials spoil the best of them.
The biggest reason “Burt Wonderstone” fails is that magicians make poor subjects for movies, whether in a drama such as “The Prestige” or a comedy such as this. A magic act must be witnessed live to truly make you wonder “how did they do that?” Movies are the art of fakery. Never mind special effects, editing alone is enough to kill the suspension of disbelief required for stage magic.
Scardino tries to create a sense of magic verisimilitude by asking David Copperfield (who appears in a cameo) to design Burt and Anton’s stage illusions. Then Scardino goes against this instinct by having a CGI dove fly out of a character’s mouth. Granted, “Burt Wonderstone” is not intended as a documentary, but that’s really cheating.