Nobody plays obtuse like Steve Carell. The part of a self-absorbed, burnt-out Las Vegas magician like Burt Wonderstone is tailor-made for the comic actor. He looks hilariously resplendent in his sequined costume and mullet wig, sleepwalking through a tired routine, alienating friends and his audience alike. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is well served by Mr. Carell’s idiot bluster, showing that Burt Wonderstone is due for a dose of comeuppance. But the story of the magician in decline flags about two-thirds of the way in, because there’s nothing sympathetic or redeemable about Burt Wonderstone to keep audiences engaged.
An opening vignette shows young Burt Wonderstone as an isolated child, bullied by peers and neglected by his mother. He seeks refuge in the world of magic, and buries himself in tricks learned on a VHS video from magician Rance Holloway, played wonderfully by Alan Arkin. Burt strikes up an alliance with a sickly, friendless loner named Anton, and they grow up to become stars of the Las Vegas stage. Their act is meant to be a tribute to their 30-year friendship. Both the act and the friendship have gone stale. The adult Anton (Steve Buscemi) quits after an attempt at an extreme endurance stunt goes awry, and Burt nearly kills Anton trying to save himself.
Jim Carrey brings his usual manic intensity to the part of Steve Grey, an extreme magician who relies less on illusion and indirection than on his willingness to torture himself for his art. His tricks run to feats of endurance like not going to the bathroom for a week, sleeping on a bed of hot coals, and cutting open his cheek to pull out a piece of paper, and stitching up the wound himself with a needle and thread. It’s Steve’s brand of magic that has Burt and Anton on the ropes, and it’s why Steve finds himself out of a job, out of money and begging favors from his former assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde).
At its silliest, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” manages to be funny and even inventive. There are some cute set pieces, like Burt’s ultra-wide bed — which could sleep a family of 10 comfortably. Burt’s cluelessness about ordinary life, arising from decades spent in a hotel suite, lead to some funny moments when he’s forced out of his bubble into the real world. For instance, he offers to clean up the dishes after Jane cooks for him at her apartment, and does so by putting the dishes just outside the front door, for room service to collect.
But the broadly comic movie wastes a sweet and nuanced performance by Mr. Arkin as the elderly Rance Holloway, who encounters Burt doing magic in a retirement home for the residents, and after some persuading agrees to help Burt revive his career. This relationship seems like it could have been a movie unto itself, but here it’s just tacked on as a device.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is trying to be something more than a fatuous comedy — it’s supposed to be about reconnecting with inner passion. This piece of the story is handled lamely, because Burt has no passion about anything other than his own material comfort and celebrity. It’s too bad, because there was a decent riches-to-rags story to be had here.
TITLE: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”
CREDITS: Directed by Don Scardino, screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
RATING: PG-13 for language and sexual themes
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS