The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
dir. Don Scardino
Release Date: Mar 15, 13
If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was ever going to exist, the better part of a decade ago would have been the time. A film about rival Las Vegas magicians wasn’t ever going to feel all that relevant, but how about a release ten years ago, when Roy Horn (of Siegfried & Roy) suffered a near-fatal accident that became an unfortunate punchline but nevertheless brought big-budget magic shows back to a temporary place of relevance? Or even a few years later, when Criss Angel’s Mindfreak briefly (and one should be very careful to emphasize briefly) revived magic as a semi-popular medium? The only advantage Wonderstone has to coming out so late, and feeling so tone-deaf, is that it can mine weak jokes out of both aforementioned examples. And those jokes end up being the film’s bread and butter.
As kids, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, used so little that his involvement is actively confusing) found kinship in one another despite being relentlessly bullied and harassed. Their escape from the painful reality of elementary school life was to buy a magic kit from a cape-wearing TV magician named Rance Holloway, learn sleight-of-hand and continue to develop as magicians until, years later, they became Vegas hotshots, anchoring Bally’s Casino as a must-see act. Along the way, Burt became a womanizer and a drunk, subordinating Anton and turning their flashy act into a massive stroke of his gargantuan ego. At the film’s start, their act is woefully out-of-date, leading the casino boss (a sleepwalking James Gandolfini) to issue an ultimatum: get with the times, or get out.
The pacing of Wonderstone feels off from the very beginning, with the film utilizing the sort of melodramatic breakup tactics usually reserved for the end of the second act of most sentimental comedies within the first fifteen minutes, and at least twice more thereafter. Despite the film’s setup, which hinges upon trying to update the act, much of the runtime is dedicated to Burt setting ablaze every possible relationship, until a spark is provided in the form of an aged Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). There are also subplots involving Burt’s romance with Jane, an aspiring female magician (Olivia Wilde), Anton’s personal sojourn to Cambodia to spread the joy of magic (as opposed to food or water) and a rival Criss Angel lookalike who attempts to take over Vegas, played by Jim Carrey with as much verve as he can find within such stillborn material. Of the whole cast, most stick to their types, to little effect. Carrell plays Burt as a hybrid of the standard Will Farrell manchild and Michael Scott at his most unpleasant, Carrey goes back to his well of funny-face mugging and Buscemi is mostly just there to have people remark upon his homeliness. Wilde fares the best, actually bringing a little bit of chemistry to the rote relationship storyline between Burt and Jane despite the film’s best efforts to mire anything remotely interesting under several layers of glitzy nothingness.
That The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is painfully unfunny becomes even more unacceptable when you consider the sheer volume of talent wasted in it, all involved given nothing to do by a script that tries to land on Arthur-style comic nadirs, broad laughs, Seth MacFarlane-style shock tactics (Carrey’s show is called Steve Gray: Brain Rapist, complete with a recurring #Rapist visual joke) and the schmaltzy pontificating that plagues the finale of every latter-day Adam Sandler vehicle, sometimes all in the same scene. However, what’s perhaps most egregious is the film’s mean streak; Burt comes off as nothing more than a cad for much of the runtime, even with a prologue at the start that establishes him as the epitome of a latchkey child. (Watching it, I occasionally started wondering what a comic rogue like Jody Hill could’ve done with the material if given the helm.) For all its attempts at hackneyed sweetness, by the time Burt and Anton pull off their ultimate trick (involving the mass sedation of a large crowd) one can only wish that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone would have offered the same kindness to all viewers.