Steves Carrell and partner Steve Buscemi, along with Jim Carrey and director Don Scardino, attempt to do to the world of Las Vegas magicians what Anchorman and Talladega Nights did for local news and NASCAR. Is The Incredible Burt Wonderstone truly incredible, or does it phone in the funny and settle for mediocrity?
Carrell (the titular Wonderstone) and Buscemi (partner Anton) are life-long pals who perform nightly at one of the hottest hotel/casinos on the Vegas strip. Their act has grown stale due to lack of innovation and Burt’s out-of-control ego, and then Jim Carrey’s scene-stealing Steve Gray shows up, with his character’s Criss Angel/David Blaine-esque style of street magic and endurance stunts sucking all the wind out of Burt and Anton’s act. Soon enough, Burt and Anton’s rocky partnership is dissolved, and Burt must embark on a quest to rediscover why he loves magic and how he can bring back the glory days of his trade without resorting to the gross-out antics of Steve Gray.
The confrontations between Burt and Gray, in which Burt’s classic, family-friendly tricks contrast sharply to Gray’s… let’s be modest and say, “family un-friendly” approach, are among the highlights of this film. Steve Carrell is such a likable man, and once his character gets over his (not entirely believable) ego-trip, we root for him all the way, to regain his friends and his mojo, and to defeat his enemy. On the other hand, Jim Carrey is in classic form, charismatic as hell while playing an affably villainous rival. If he wanted, he could easily star in his own film as the character, such is the energy every time he appears on camera, and how likeable he is, even when he’s ostensibly the bad guy. The final lead is Steve Buscemi; despite being only five years older than Carrell, poor Buscemi looks at least a decade ahead of his counterpart, a fact which is played for laughs when the childhood versions of the characters discuss the myriad medications the sickly Anton has to take daily.
Rounding out the cast are Olivia Wilde as the romantic interest who can hold her own in the field of magic (and in fact, plays a much better magician than plausible love interest); James Gandolfini as the hotel mogul who helps keep the story moving; and Alan Arkin as Rance Holloway, Burt’s mentor and retired magician who still has a few tricks, and doves, up his sleeves.
The film is competently directed by television veteran Don Scardino, who knows when to keep the camera running and let the laughs flow, even if it keeps the story from moving forward. After all, in a movie like this, what’s more important: getting laughs or keeping the plot moving forward? This is a comedy, not a revenge thriller, and every scene, even if not packed with straight-up jokes, has some level of absurdity or quirky, character-based gags, to keep the proceedings from being anything less than delightfully skewed. Even when the script eases off on the laughs, it’s still an amusing and surprisingly heartwarming romp, with likable characters and strong performances (The scenes at the retirement home stand out as among the film’s best).
If the film has one weakness, it’s one common to comedies like this: tone. The film has something of a family-friendly appearance, and usually adheres to its light PG-13 rating, with its themes of “magical friendship,” respecting and honoring elders, and the virtues of being a nice and classy guy, and so the raunchier elements, such as Alan Arkin’s F-bomb and occasional bits of sexual humor, feel more out of place here than they would in, say, Anchorman. Still, it’s a small gripe, and most of the adult stuff will probably fly right over the heads of the itty-bitty kiddies anyway, so there is little danger in bringing them along. In addition, we don’t really grasp that Wonderstone is supposed to be a jerk. The film opens with him and Anton as children, and then when it jumps into their adulthood, Burt is suddenly a dick. It’s not that big of a deal, but it kills some of the energy in the early parts of the film, until we can adjust to the sudden change in our lead character, so that he may become a nicer man that we like again, which isn’t hard, since Carrell is such a genuine actor and is just a joy to watch.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not the funniest movie ever, but it is certainly satisfying, and provides enough laughs from low to high-brow, as well as a smart, feel-good story that the whole cast appears to have had fun performing in. It’s a fun time, and the best comedy so far this year.