The talent involved suggests you’re probably going to get something funnier than The Incredible Burt Wonderstone ends up being. Alternatively the film’s awful marketing campaign, would suggest the opposite. In the end I guess it’s a wash as it’s hardly the disaster I expected it to be, but not exactly a show-stopper.
Burt Wonderstone plays nicely for its 100 minute running time despite the fact it never really hits many high notes and the funnier moments are funny as a result of arbitrary behavior rather than well-developed setups. Nevertheless, I laughed enough to call this a slightly above average comedy… it’s up to you to decide if that’s worth your dollars.
Directed by longtime television helmer Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) and written by Horrible Bosses scribes, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, Burt Wonderstone is far from high concept. A pair of bullied young kids find a shared joy in magic as children and grow up to live the lives afforded them by their Las Vegas stage names — Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), a duo clearly inspired by the theatrics of Vegas magicians Siegfried & Roy. Of course, there must be a falling out in a story of this sort.
Once the closest of friends, Burt and Anton’s friendship crumbles thanks in large part to Burt’s massive ego as well as their outdated performances, which had them playing to a half-filled auditorium. They go their separate ways and the story will bring them back together, but that’s the stereotypical backbone to the story you expect. Where this film tends to mildly excel is in its supporting characters, mainly those played by Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin with a couple of nice contributions from Olivia Wilde.
Carrey plays street magician Steve Gray who is clearly something of an amalgamation of Criss Angel and David Blaine whose “tricks” largely involve violent self-mutilation servicing as the punchline. These tricks and the pain his character suffers for his “craft” are less the comedic bonus than are Gray’s smaller contributions, such as a scene in which he insults Burt and Anton at a bar only to turn and float out the door. You don’t see his feet, only his head and erect torso on a steady line. Okay, it’s not so much funny as it is random and stupid, but I loved it.
Some jokes do grow increasingly tiresome, such as Burt continuing to call Olivia Wilde’s character Nicole even though her name is Jane, but the extended punchline has a decent payoff later in the film once Jane must start working as Gray’s assistant to make ends meet. For that matter, most of the moments involving Carrey work as the bizarre nature of every scene involving him are so over-the-top, smaller jokes around them can’t help but work.
Carell’s back-and-forth with Arkin as Wonderstone’s childhood inspiration Rance Holloway also works, both for Holloway’s aged, acidic nature, Arkin’s talents for delivering such lines and the overall relationship developed, which gives the film a modicum of heart. These are the small joys in a film that could have been so much worse had Scardino not been able to attract the talent he did.
If the film suffers, it’s in its setup. Even though the market isn’t flooded with magician comedies, little of this felt new. A one-time great entertainer past his prime and unwilling to change falls on hard times only to find his fire rekindled by the source of his original inspiration… and a woman. I mean, we’re talking Screenwriting 101 here. I’d also argue the Carell and Wilde love connection is a little hard to swallow considering the 22 years that separate them, but these are all reasons this film only hovers around average and nothing more.
You could do a lot worse than Burt Wonderstone or you could skip it and wait for DVD, either way I think you get the point. If you’re a fan of Carell his character’s off-putting nature may cause you to dislike this film more than like it, but fans of Carrey’s antics are likely to walk away satisfied, though not over-joyed.