Steve Carell has gone from a television performer to cultural icon with the American version of The Office. He developed a character that was vain and insolent but at the same time kind and clueless. He quit that gig to start a film career that includes The 40-Year-old Virgin, Dinner for Schmucks, Get Smart and Dan In Real Life. His latest is The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
The story starts with a lonely little boy, young Burt, on his birthday. He is kid in a broken home who gets a magic kit by Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) and starts doing tricks. He almost instantly finds a kindred spirit with Anton, a boy in his class.
Flash forward several years and Burt is now The Amazing Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton is Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). They are best friends who still work together and cannot stand each other. Their headlining Las Vegas act is a bit stale and Burt just goes through the ropes without any passion. He is vain and pompous, calling his new assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) “Nicole”, the name of the girl she reluctantly replaced. To add to their problems, a street magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is burning up the strip. His act is made up of stunts such as lying on a bed of coals and pulling a card from his skin. Our old-style magicians are appalled by Steve’s brazen version of magic… but the audiences love it.
Thus begins the downfall of Burt. He and Anton try to do a stunt on the strip that fails miserably. It becomes the final straw in their duo. Burt then fails at becoming a solo act. He eventually loses his penthouse suite and his show. Eventually, he begins performing at an old-folks home. There he meets Rance Holloway who berates him for losing the wonder of doing magic. In Rocky-like fashion, Rance and Burt begin to work together to build an act. The highlight of the film happens when Burt takes a job at a kid’s birthday party. Steve Gray shows up and tries to upstage Burt. Their battle of magic is the biggest moment of the movie. The story flies toward a giant magic competition that is both literally and figuratively a sleeper. Burt reconnects with Anton and gets the girl. The whole production ties up to an ending that it just too pat than patter.
The basic problem with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is that it doesn’t build on the foundation. It is more a series of skit ideas strung together than a coherent plot. There are basically three giant comedic set pieces and a series of minor jokes to string them along. The other problem with the film is the structure. The writers force the convictions of story where they shouldn’t have. No one believes that Jane would fall for someone who has been so cruel to her; Steve Buscemi’s character just disappears for a long while and is missed; and the movie yaws side to side without keeping an even keel.
Steve Carell is doing a blending of both Siegfried and Roy with just a bit of first season Michael Scott thrown into the mix. While he never truly looses his vanity, he eventually finds some semblance of a heart. His character arc is somewhat unbelievable and fails to bring a true resolution to the premise.
The true highlight of the film is Jim Carrey. He steals just about every scene he is in with a wild-eyed frenzy he had a decade ago. This is the same Carrey of his biggest hits and he has found his element again. Any scene with him is comic joy and the best moments are between him and Carell. Olivia Wilde has a thankless job in this film, the part of the magician’s assistant. She is given one true moment to shine in a scene where she proves that she is a magician. It is the kind of scene where one goes ‘Why isn’t there more of her?’ Giving her more to do is a sorely missed opportunity.
Director Don Scardino does a fine job of capturing the action of the film but his forte is in casting the right people for the roles. With such heavyweight performers, all he has to do is set-up the camera and let the actors do their stuff. Burt Wonderstone is a good movie but not a great one. It is more of an entertainment than a fully-functioning cinematic effort. It’s enjoyable but forgettable… it is also the kind of film that will be shown over and over again on afternoon cable decades from now.