Movie Review: “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”

Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia
Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini
Don Scardino

In a nutshell, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with magicians, but whatever your feelings may be about “Talladega Nights” (this writer, for one, was not impressed), keep in mind that that description serves solely as a comparison to the story structure. Each features an underdog becoming wildly successful at his craft, only to turn ridiculously spoiled and contemptuous, and then losing everything he ever held dear. The big difference is that the jokes in “Talladega Nights” are born from abuse, while “Burt Wonderstone” takes the high road. Well, for the most part.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) have been doing magic tricks together since they were kids, and 30 years after they first met, they have become a premiere act in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, they can’t stand each other anymore, and their box office is starting to wane due to both their lack of chemistry on stage and the fact that they haven’t changed their act (or clothes) in 10 years. The duo is also feeling the heat from Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a self-mutilating street magician who’s attracting the younger audience that Burt and Anton’s employer Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) desperately covets. After an attempt at an image makeover goes horribly wrong, Burt and Anton split up. Doug then shuts down their show, after which Burt quickly finds himself on skid row, but he finds redemption in the form of the person who inspired him to choose his path in the first place.

Even Steve Carell will tell you that you’ve seen this movie a million times before, and that alone is not necessarily a bad thing (see: “RED” or “Shoot ‘Em Up“). Something predictable will work if it’s well executed, and “Burt Wonderstone” benefits from three things: a top-notch cast, a damned funny script, and a healthy respect for its subject matter. And as talented as this cast is, it’s the last of those three that proves to be the most crucial. Making fun of magicians is easy – even magicians will tell you that – but acknowledging their trappings while encapsulating the wonder they can inspire takes a steady hand, and “Burt Wonderstone” balances the two quite well.

Carell has his cake here and eats it too, relishing the chance to play vain, shallow Burt and then casually sliding into the skin of humbled, remorseful Burt without a pause. And God love Steve Buscemi for having the courage to take a role where he is the target of an onslaught of ugly jokes. Olivia Wilde‘s film career has been largely funny-free since she left “House,” but she more than holds her own against some of the funniest people working today, and while it must have been tough at first for Jim Carrey to accept not just a supporting role but a villainous supporting role, his performance as the Radiohead-quoting Johnny Knoxville of magic (“Your skin makes me cry,” he tells Carell at one point) contains some of his finest work in years. Lastly, there’s Alan Arkin, who has been scientifically proven to make everything funnier (Google “Alan Arkin swordfish,” now), and his work here as retired magician Rance Holloway is no exception.

It’s funny how a movie’s prospects can often live and die on its title alone. “The Simpsons” did perhaps the best joke on this subject when has-been actor Troy McClure abandoned the upcoming McBain sequel (a surefire career-reviver) in order to make “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.” (The show never reveals how that movie did at the box office, but the implication is that it will bomb.) If I’m being honest, the very title “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” lowered my expecations considerably – hey, even good actors make bad movies – but this is one instance where one shouldn’t judge the book by its cover.