The Incredible Burt Wonderstone reminds me of the early 90s entitled scoundrel-turned-decent human being comedies starring Steve Martin or Bill Murray. Our protagonist is successful in his field but is an unbearable, smug a-hole whose sudden downfall provides him with much-needed humility and catapults him into being reborn as a man of compassion and empathy. Scrooged and Groundhog Day are only two films that come to mind after thinking for half a second.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is a Vegas Strip headlining magician who, after performing the same act for ten years, has lost all enthusiasm for his beloved profession and is looking to fill that hole by treating his pacifist partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) like crap and "treating objects like women", as The Dude once said.
However, when their livelihood is threatened by a Criss Angel-like shock magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), Burt’s ego cannot take the blow and he causes the partnership to implode. With his career in the dumps, Burt has to learn to find that “magic feeling” all over again with the help of his beautiful assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and the old magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).
The casting of the supporting actors are pretty spot on. It’s nice to see Steve Buscemi back in passive mode similar to “Shut the f--- up” Donny. Those of you who are familiar with him mostly through his work on Boardwalk Empire will be surprised at his 180-degree change in attitude.
Jim Carrey is expected to act like a buffoon and delivers exactly what you expect from a manic Carrey performance rolled over from his 90s heyday. Alan Arkin once again effortlessly manages to become the heart of the film simply with his very presence. Some of the only scenes that ring true amidst all the Adam Sandler-style visual gags involve Alan Arkin telling Steve Carell why he got into magic in the first place.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of female characters who are written as nerdy, unpopular and somewhat dorky being portrayed by gorgeous supermodels. Don’t get me wrong, Olivia Wilde is a fine actress and she gives it her all in a role where she has to play the unpopular magic nerd who has been ignored her whole life.
Am I really supposed to believe a woman who looks like Olivia Wilde was an outcast in high school whose nickname was Magic Bitch? Even if she was the ugly duckling back then, how come the men in this film still mostly ignore her? In cases like this, I always imagine that I’m wearing a special pair of Hollywood glasses, making a character who would look plain in real life being portrayed by, well, Olivia Wilde.
Finally we’re at the casting of Steve Carell as The Pompous Burt Wonderstone. Carell exceeds as characters who are pure in a crazy world (40-Year-Old Virgin) or annoying and offensive not because they are malicious, but because they are clueless beyond belief (The Office). But as a plain a-hole, his reputation is too wholesome to carry this role. Steve Martin or Bill Murray might be too old, but Will Ferrell or Jack Black would have killed as Burt Wonderstone.
The film’s director is Don Scardino, who comes primarily from television. Therefore, The Incredible Burt Wonderston has the visual and narrative style of a single camera sitcom, “Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” approach. It gets the job done as a relatively engaging comedy, but there is nothing special to see here.
One final note: The whole point of conflict between Carell and Carrey’s characters is that Carell represents the wholesome magic of yesteryear while Carrey promotes irresponsible, dangerous magic. Yet even though it provides the funniest post-credits scene I’ve seen in a long time, Carell and Buscemi’s final show-stopping act reeks of danger and irresponsibility.