You know him as a wonderful performer who has captivated millions of people countless times. Years ago, he made his first appearance on the stage of public attention and to everyone’s surprise, pulled a rabbit out of the hat to thunderous applause. But as the seasons pass, can he maintain the same level of creative energy that made him a star in the first place?
I am, of course, talking about Steve Carell, star of Friday’s new comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Once the funniest Daily Show correspondent, he performed to everyone’s amazement, including himself, a meteoric rise in Hollywood. From Brick the Weatherman to Comedy Magic Man.
He has occasionally dabbled successfully in heavier dramedies, but is still widely known for characters like Andy, the sweet and lovable 40 Year Old Virgin and Michael Scott, the comedy MVP of The Office. Most of his characters have always been kindly fellows who happen to be a bit oblivious or say inappropriate things. Still, even when he is driving his employees crazy with “That’s what she said!” puns or awkwardly hitting on Anne Hathaway in Get Smart, we adore the guy.
For his next trick in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he attempts to inverse the likable guy who acts douchey with a douche who acts likable. However, it is probably not off to the best start if we already see the wires for this illusion.
Burt Wonderstone (Carell) has been fascinated by magic ever since he was a small boy. It all started when the lonely child received a videocassette of the entrancing, foulmouthed, magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). It would teach him the wonders of card tricks.
Soon enough, Burt Wonderstone rises through the ranks of Las Vegas showmen alongside his childhood BFF Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). The two form a mystical, big hair duo through the 1990s, reminiscent of Siegfried and Roy. But lest you wonder, the film shows Carell’s Wonderstone hooking up with Gillian Jacobs (yay for Community fans!) within the first 15 minutes and strongly reassuring mainstream audiences that Wonderstone is like totally super straight.
In fact, he’s only in it for the women. Got it?
After 10 years at a Vegas casino owned by Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), the tricks have lost their thrill for aging Burt. He resents Anton always coming up with new ideas or milking the audience’s enjoyment. Burt would much rather hit on his rotating line of female assistants, including the new sidekick with big dreams, Jane (Olivia Wilde).
While Burt becomes overly complacent about showbiz, new up-and-comer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is reinventing what magic can mean for audiences. One can use the term “magician” loosely, as this street performer is from the David Blaine School of EXTREME. For him, magic tricks include pulling a volunteer’s card out of a gaping hole he cut into his own cheek or burning “Happy Birthday” in elegant cursive on his flesh during a children’s party.
Everything about him represents the new reality show world where magic can simply be surviving underground or at incredible heights for days on end. It is the kind of performance art that many fans admire while many more snicker at, passing by on their morning commute.
Yet, after ticket sales for Burt and Anton drop off in favor of this street performer with a TV crew, The Incredible Burt and Anton try to compete by staying in a hotbox suspended over the Vegas strip…things do not go according to plan. Eventually, Burt and Anton have the requisite Second Act falling out and Burt becomes an overnight has-been.
Broke and at the end of his rope, he starts performing magic tricks for elderly Las Vegas entertainers in a retirement home and reconciles there with his childhood idol Rance. Arkin’s grouchy barking and the standard love interest support from Wilde give Burt the strength to better himself and discover the sleight of hand needed to take his title back.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a well-worn magic trick. A conceited lout loses everything and has to work his way back to the top. Hell, comebacks in Vegas could even be their own genre.
What will make The Incredible Burt Wonderstone either levitate or flop is the strength of its performances and the laughs it has hidden up the sleeve. On that first count, a strong cast works overtime to win over every skeptic in the house.
Despite Burt being a bit of a reverse for Carell’s usual comic persona, he brings all the warmth he can to the sad eyes, including when he tries to make out with Olivia Wilde after explaining to her that women are just naturally inferior to men.
Wilde is also game in a supporting part she has already played many times before. Sitting in as romantic foil to Jack Black, Ryan Reynolds and Ty Burrell in other comedies, she continues to bring tons of energy and comic timing to this underwritten cliché.
Throughout the movie, Carell wrongly calls her “Nicole,” but it honestly does not matter anymore to us, than it does to him. She is there to have a few good barbs at Carell’s expense and pick him back up when he feels blue. Ta-dah.
The rest of the supporting cast gets to show off a bit more. Buscemi is honestly not in the movie enough. Clearly having a blast reminding audiences he can do more than glower and order the murder of surrogate sons on HBO, Buscemi elevates the movie’s entertainment value like a de-ribbed dove every time he is onscreen.
Carrey also brings his A-game as he begins a new phase in his career. The reinvented star seems to enjoy these character parts that do not require sympathy and feels at ease as a greasy, strung out magician who is so intense that even Rob Zombie would tell him to go chill out and take a shower.
When his tweaked out eyes get close enough to touch Carell’s nostril hair, there is even something akin to dramatic conflict in the film. In those far too few scenes, I could sense a better movie hidden in there; a laugher version of The Prestige. However, you can rest assured, it is only fleeting.
Arkin and Gandolfini also get a few good one-liners sprinkled throughout, but it ultimately comes to very little. As affable and ready to go as all these players are, the movie’s greatest trick is how few and far between the laughs truly are.
There are plenty of gags, but they come and go with all the surprise of a kid’s magic show. Director Don Scardino and the actors throw everything at the screen in a series of set-ups, but most of the time a few chuckles is the only prestige an audience can expect.
The screenplay, written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is so bound by the comeback formula that they forgot to put many real jokes in. There are a few scenes, most involving Carrey, that can lull the audience into the illusion that the movie is funny, but this is mostly a pleasant giggle-free ride.
The most faithful Carell fans will likely enjoy the show, but the rest will wish they did not already know how this trick plays out.