The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has the perfect setup to pull off its comedic magic trick: the coupling of Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, two of Hollywood's sharpest comedic actors, an ensemble of equally funny supporting players, and the exaggerated world of Vegas magicians. The trick goes awry with Carell's titular character — no slight of hand can turn the venomous Burt Wonderstone into a person worth caring about. When Wonderstone falls from his steady gig at a Vegas casino, he deserves it. When he tries to climb back up, there's little reason to care. The movie lands a lot of laughs, but most of the time, you just want Burt Wonderstone to disappear.
Discovering a passion for magic at an early age, Burt and his best friend Anton (Steve Buscemi) embark on a stage career, eventually working their way up to becoming the star players at Vegas hotel magnate Doug Munny's (James Gandolfini) flagship venue. Years of cutting each other up with swords, pretending to hang themselves, and dancing to the Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra" has split them apart — Burt is a megalomaniac and Anton can't remember why he got into the business in the first place. The fissure is deepened by the emergence of Steve Grey (Carrey), a punk rock illusionist who cranks the Criss Angel shtick up to 11. Burt and Anton try and battle Grey at his own game by living in a dangling plastic box for a week. They only make it an hour before calling it quits and officially splitting up.
Burt Wonderstone cozies up to the warm and fuzzy luddite ideals that there's room for both the old and the new as entertainment evolves, taking Burt back to the basics and reveling in his mastery of close-up tricks. The art isn't about glitz and glamour or Grey's shock value — it's just about making people smile. And it does: as Burt bounces back from losing his job, losing all of his money, and losing his partner, he rediscovers his love for the craft with the help of his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and childhood idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Together, they pull quarters from kids ears, make puppies appear from thin air, and have a swell ol' time. It's not that funny, but director Don Scardino and writers Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley throw enough love on screen to make it palatable.
It's just too bad that the Burt we meet at the beginning of the movie is the worst kind of jerk. A running gag throughout the film is that he can't remember Jane's real name — even when he starts realizing that forgetting it is a defining characteristic of his nature. Making it harder to care about Burt's plight is Carrey's amazing (yet small) performance as Grey. As the host of Brain Rapist, Carrey bounces back and forth between zen warrior of the magic world to ballistic crazyman. In one scene, Grey performs a card trick involving a self-mutilation and it's as disturbing and physically challenging as Carrey's Ace Ventura work. It steals the show from Carell, who struggles to turn Wonderstone's mean sensibility into genuine laughs.
As with any great magic trick, Wonderstone is effective in diverting our attention to the small moments. The best beats in the film come from the weird mumblings of Buscemi's Anton, the nice guy who is supportive to the bitter end, and SNL vet Jay Mohr's struggling magician character, who grins his way through a line about his "family of ferrets" that kills. But these flourishes can't save Wonderstone from its biggest problems, one surprisingly intertwined with the themes of the movie: despite a great cast and solid jokes, it's still going through the motions. Great comedy requires a little more magic.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]