Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) immediately fell in love with the magical craft when given a Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) magician starter kit during his childhood. Burt finds a young partner in crime in Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), and grows up to live his dream. They become the most famous magician pairing on the Las Vegas strip. But, after a number of years at the top, with fame and wealth to show for, the friendship has begun to fall apart. A feud has developed as Burt’s ego continues to grow and without fresh material their ticket sales are floundering. They also face tough competition from Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) an unpredictable showboat street magician whose outrageous self-abusive stunts have caused a sensation on television and the Internet. When Burt finds himself jobless and partner less, he is forced to rediscover the passion he has misplaced.
Much like Anton is forever in Burt’s shadow, Buscemi – a comic genius at times - is predominantly sidelined too. It is a shame, but Buscemi and Carrell just didn’t work well together anyway. Brad Garrett, who appears briefly as Burt’s accountant, James Gandolfini, as the smug, smirking billionaire casino owner who hires and fires Burt and Anton, and especially Arkin, whose dry wit always manages to provoke laughs, are effective in supporting roles. Carrey steals many scenes as the guerilla entertainer whose dangerous stunts defy the functioning of the human body. His entry is insane, and one of the film’s few highlights. The public reactions to him holding is own urine and not blinking for impossible periods of time are also amusing. With Carrell in bad form, it isn’t hard for Carrey to bring in his justified swagger and steal the comic limelight. Even Carrell’s one-man attempt to perform without Anton and their assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) fell flat when it could have been instance of rare gold.
But, in addition to the weak gags assigned the cast, there is a much bigger flaw here – Steve Carrell himself. Now, I usually like Carrell. He has had a string of great roles over the years. His work in the 40 Year Old Virgin as a backable average-joe desperate to fit in and hide his ignorance is terrific, and beneath his often-despicable behaviour in The Office there is a semblance of well-meaning decency. He simply isn’t funny in this film. His character is a rude, stupid and incredibly unlikable asshole, and he has grown so comfortable with his ego and so self-involved that he has no knowledge that his behaviour is rotten. He bullies and ridicules his best friend until he leaves him and is dismissive of the other magicians on the strip. He is a sexist elitist who can’t handle hearing the truth about his tired routines and can’t maturely accept his deserved professional descent. When it comes around to the inevitable redemption arc, we don’t care to see him rediscover his passion. We hardly applaud him finding his feet and getting the girl.
For the duration of the film he blatantly disrespects Jane, refusing to believe she has aspirations of being anything more than a magician’s ‘assistant’ while failing to even acknowledge her open admission of his inspiration on her, just as Holloway once inspired him. Furthermore, he flat out deduces that she would never make it far in the business because she is a woman. Despite copping all this shit, Jane sticks by his side, supports his comeback and even develops romantic feelings for him. It is ridiculous development. Ultimately he doesn’t learn anything – other than that he needs those he has hurt in his life, but doesn’t acknowledge how he hurt them. These characters aren’t believable human beings, and the film’s darker, mean-spirited side just doesn’t sit well with staple Hollywood comedy conformity.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a redemption tale about a character we don’t desire receiving a reprieve, but it does tackle broken friendships and professional rivalries, and pits different breeds of magic-as-entertainment against one another. Interestingly, it may also serve as comment on the modern wrestle between what has the power to amaze – extremist feats we can see happening before our eyes, or classical illusions that involve misdirection. But, make no mistake, there are no illusions here and the filmmakers’ bag of tricks is faker than Carrell’s ridiculous hair.
The laughs are far too sparse to sustain one’s interest for very long in this incredibly unpleasant let down.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22