3/21/2013 - Steve Carell offers an argument for not running away from your sure-thing sitcom in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a movie that should have been so very much better.
A bully-magnet who is chased home from school in the early 1980s, young Albert (Mason Cook) thinks he’s found the answer to outcastness when he discovers magic thanks to a Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) magic set. He does not, as is not surprising, impress the bullies with his ability to pull coins and hankies from various places, but he does find a friend in Anthony (Luke Vanek), a fellow oddball. They set to work designing magic tricks, and decades later they are headliners at Bally’s in Las Vegas billed as Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steven Buscemi), the Magical Friendship.
Of course, off stage the friendship has soured. Marvelton wants to update the show but Wonderstone — bored with everything but his own comfort, and even a bit bored by that, as we see when he romances an audience member — thinks the pair is still at the top of their game. When he sees Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a stunt-based magician whose “magic” seems mostly about gore and pain, Burt thinks the young man is a hack. But with a TV show and an adoring crowd, Steve is the next big thing and Burt and Anton are on their way out. After a fight breaks up the pair, Burt finds himself without a home theater or a penthouse apartment. Soft from years of hairsprayed wigs, sparkly costumes and unfortunate spray-tans, can Burt get back in touch with the joy that got him hooked on magic in the first place?
The pompous doofus who has a heart buried beneath his pretension is Carell’s thing, it’s his bread and butter, his greatest hit. And it’s not like he doesn’t pull it off here. Also, Alan Arkin as the old guy who has seen it all: while he’s goofier here than in Argo, his aging magician is just as much fun as his grumpy producer. Olivia Wilde shows up to play, essentially, Requisite Girl, but she gives the part just a bit more personality than it could have had. Even Carrey’s Play-Doh facial features aren’t the obvious problem. So where exactly does Burt Wonderstone go off the rails? I feel like the problem might be a “see what happens” factor. Were all of these parts assembled with the idea that we could just “see what happens” and “it will work out” because, after all, who doesn’t love Carell and Arkin and to a lesser degree comedy-Buscemi? The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is an example that a movie doesn’t “have to” work. You might have solid actors and a cute premise but without an injection of life, without at least some smart writing, your big movie won’t necessarily go anywhere. (Notice how I say here that Wonderstone needed to have smart writing to work and how over in The Call I say being smart is completely unnecessary for success? That double standard is exactly why comedy is hard, perhaps the hardest movie genre to get right.)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has its less-horrible moments, most of them centered on a friendship that develops between a down-on-his-luck Burt and a nursing-home-dwelling Rance. But so much of this movie feels like an idea for a concept instead of a fleshed-out story. C-
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, drug-related incidents and language. Directed by Don Scardino with a screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and a story by Chad Kultgen & Tyler Mitchell and Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.