A satire of has-been Vegas magicians, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone mirrors the career trajectory of its star Steve Carell. Burt is a talented, handsome man who’s biggest star turn is playing an unlikeable jackass (Michael Scott from The Office) who has found his career floundering because he keeps playing the same role (the divide between Burt and Michael is only a question of degree). Like many of Carrell’s output as of late, the cute but entirely standard riches-to-rags-to-riches fails a bit more than it should because of a stellar supporting cast that’s allowed to have a bit more fun than its de facto star.
This is a thoroughly safe affair for Carell who is funny only because he’s Steve Carell and he makes that…face, you know, that Steve Carell face so darn well. He may be the reason we’re coming to the theater, but we stick around for the cast, namely the criminally underused Jim Carrey as new wave street magician Steve Grey. The previews would have you believe this is some modern age The Prestige, a duel between two magicians but the film is more focused on trying to turn Wonderstone from a complete jackass to a slightly less complete jackass. To the film’s credit, it succeeds fairly well in this regard but rarely does it get the blood going. At least, rarely does Carrell get us smiling and chuckling; Carrey, the non-existent in the previews Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin and Olivia Wilde get us laughing harder than the stilted Carrell, who’s trying to channel too much of Michael Scott in the role.
The film never gets into a good groove pacing wise. It fluctuates between quick and funny scenes and long droughts where the movie screeches to a halt, especially during the second act after Carell has torpedoed his career and friendship with his magic partner Anton (Buscemi). The problem with having a jackass as your main character is that jackasses are often best portrayed around other people, and when it’s just Burt on screen, the movie is never as funny as it thinks it is. Carell is too dry, too unapproachable in the role as if his heart isn’t really into it and he’s collecting a paycheck and falling back on what made The Office so successful.
Jim Carrey has been in a bit of a rut these days, he’s had flop after flop in recent years and we’ve been itching for some classic, zany Carrey. Director Don Scardino, a non-entity if ever there was one, knows enough to just let Jim Carrey do what he does best. Steve Gray, freed from the need for a real character arc is a perpetual thorn in the side of Wonderstone, a great distraction and a hilariously over the top scathing of “magicians” like Criss Angel. Carrey, having flirted with more serious roles, has come back to embrace what made him so amazing in the first place, only now he gives it a little edge, a little more darkness. Gray’s an asshole, you want to see him fail, he does, and Carrey never even tries to make him likeable. All the better!
The question to ask of any comedy is: was it funny? The Incredible Burt Wonderstone does have some laughs, quite a few chuckles, but the energy is turned down low. The jokes are objectively funny, they’re simply delivered in a tired, almost bored way. Jay Mohr (yeah, remember him?) plays a failing comedy-magician whose every single scene seems to fall a little flat. Carell hits more than most people, but only because he has the lion’s share of the zingers. When Carrey walks onto the screen we breathe a sigh of relief, ‘At last,’ we exhale, ‘we can be wowed.’ Because what are movies if not magic in and of themselves? And even a silly, ridiculous kind of magic deserves a good showman and Carrey is all of that and more.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, while not the funniest thing Carell, Carrey or any of the players has delivered in their career, is still a charming little distraction, a safe and entertaining Sunday matinee film. The story is familiar, the characters and jokes are, too, but there is something to be said about going to a familiar thing. The movie will not last. Another week and it will be forgotten, and no amount of sleight of hand will ever bring it back to the public’s eye. Like Wonderstone the character, Wonderstone the movie has already moved past its prime.