There are moments in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone that capture the enchantment of “real magic” (magicians’ term for a trick or illusion performed to perfection), and there are a few scenes that are truly satirical, or at least sweetly amusing. So it’s a shame that this bland comedy didn’t go further, as either a satire of, or homage to, the art of magic.
After a boring prologue explaining how two picked-on kids found empowerment through a learn-it-yourself magic kit starring Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin a la Harry Blackstone Jr.), the film fast-forwards 30 years. Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), an egotistical showman, and his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), a meek inventor, are superstars, with a contract in Las Vegas and their own theater in a hotel owned by Doug (the reliably amusing James Gandolfini). But Burt is bored of being rich and famous, and bored with the steady stream of groupies who consent to contractual sex acts, and bored most of all with performing with his loyal partner.
The duo are thrown for a loop when a trendy street magician becomes the biggest thing in magic. Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, lampooning Chris Angel) cuts his flesh and roasts on coals to the fascination of crowds hoping for a freak-out. After Burt gets his comeuppance—audiences dwindle, the duo’s attempt at geek magic flops, Anton quits—he rediscovers his love of magic through a chance encounter with the aging Rance. Arkin gets the most out of his mild role, and Carrey does some of his best physical comedy in years. As a satire of stunt entertainment, his “Brain Rape” routines are right on the money. But as the film (written by committee) dithers between trying to be a comedy or a heartwarming tale of altered priorities, it sinks into insipid meandering. Anton’s celebrity-charity trip to a starving nation where rabbits are put in pots instead of pulled from hats does nothing but pad the running time.
But where the script really fails is with Burt. Pulling back from a satire on David Copperfield-style entertainers (Copperfield, who served as a consultant, makes a cameo), Burt is a barely amusing cliché, reducing Carell to mugging. Buscemi hasn’t a single comic instance, and Jay Mohr is wasted as a washed-up magician whose name—Rick the Implausible—is funnier than anything he has to say. While the funniest men in movies flounder, only Arkin and Olivia Wilde, as Jane, a much-put-upon assistant, manage to act their way out of lame-o scenarios—and they are lucky enough to get a very clever bit toward the end. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is so astoundingly not incredible that it doesn’t even merit a debate on the futility of showing sleight-of-hand on the big screen, where the possibility of cinematic trickery renders it moot. However, the grand finale (an exaggeration of Copperfield’s most inventive grand illusion) almost invokes a sense of wonder. Too bad the film’s only surprise comes from how it ruins a perfectly good ending.