Despite a string of safe choices that’d suggest otherwise, Steve Carrell is a hard actor to pin down. Often able to showcase hidden depths in work like 40 Year Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine (still his best appearance to date), he’s also becoming consistent for turning in extremely pedestrian, middling comedic shtick; interestingly a stigma once earned by another star he shares the screen with in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. And where Carell offers up another Get Smart-esque performance, laying a stern voice over a rigid turn that rarely ingratiates itself, Jim Carrey suggests here that it’s never too late to get out of a rut.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn’t an all-timer. We won’t be talking about it decades from now, hailing its biting wit and brilliant situational comedy. The movie’s not even that funny. But it manages to be a decent enough romp for its running time that you’re likely to walk away entertained. There are jokes that hit, like when Burt (Carell) and his assistant Anton (a criminally underused Steve Buscemi) suspend themselves in a glass case under the hot Vegas sun for what’s supposed to be one week, but for all the jokes that hit there are another two or three that miss. Truthfully, most everything that works in the film is in spite of its title character.
Burt Wonderstone begins the film a dry, misogynist, unlikeable prick and spends the majority of Incredible learning to be a less dry, less misogynist, still generally unlikeable prick. The film finds Burt at the nadir of his career, mired in the dwindling returns of a magic show while disintegrating his partnership with Anton. The arrival of street illusionist Steve Gray puts Wonderstone’s life into disarray. He soon loses his business partner, his show and his cushy life as Gray’s stripped-down approach to magic puts him in favor with Doug Munny, the owner of the casino Wonderstone once called home.
Don Scardino, with a background predominantly in television, just barely sits in the director’s chair here. This is a comedy that feels like it could’ve directed itself honestly, and Scardino mostly lets the performers in front of the camera do exactly that, injecting little in the way of firm, directorial guidance. To that effect I wonder if a stronger talent behind the camera could’ve pushed this further. Many a joke in Wonderstone is reigned in before it can truly manifest into something memorable. This is a soft PG-13 that doesn’t take advantage of Carell and Carrey’s talents in raunch.
Speaking of Carrey, he’s absolutely the best thing about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Anytime the film threatens to lag or get mired in the woefulness of Carell’s character: enter Steve Gray – popping up to deliver another of his increasingly dangerous and death-defying “illusions.” Performing cheap stunts for his reality show Brain Rapist, I’m all for Hollywood taking some more not-so-subtle potshots at Criss Angel. Even if the running gag feels somewhat past its expiration date (Angel’s not been relevant for years, trading infamy for a cushy gig on the strip), Carrey’s manic delivery and wiry frame makes it work. Incredible doesn’t even attempt to make Gray out as a serious magician. He’s an egomaniacal pretender, mistaking shock for talent. He may also be legitimately insane, as Gray’s final stunt, by far the funniest gag in the film, reveals he might not have as firm a grip on his craft as his confidence would lead you to believe.
Any comedy that has Alan Arkin in it is better for the sheer fact that it has Alan Arkin in it. That’s no different here. As Rance Holloway, the performer that once inspired Burt and Anton to become magicians, Arkin wrestles the “Cranky Old Man” role and proves once again there’s no shortage of… I’m so sorry for this… tricks up his sleeve. Along with Carrey, he’s the only actor providing credible laughs here. Holloway’s been holed up in a living center for some time now, and it’s a chance encounter that brings he and Wonderstone together. Carell and Arkin actually have good rapport, no doubt carrying from their scenes together in Sunshine.
Olivia Wilde, as Burt’s assistant and love interest Jane, also brings a little something something to the table. Wilde’s a performer whose beauty works against her. The idea that she could potentially end up with a mess of a man like Burt is laughable and totally unrealistic, but it helps that she plays Jane completely down to earth. I like her arc and I like what Wilde’s able to do with it. Completely serviceable performance in the context of the film.
Still, Carrey’s resurgence is the only thing keeping The Incredible Burt Wonderstone as anything but a rental. This is really an ensemble comedy where the scale is tipped too far in the wrong star’s favor, as Carell never builds a character worth a damn. I’d have rather seen the script pull back and relish its ensemble tendencies, delivering a story lampooning the larger scene as opposed to the stereotype. This is a film where the supporters are supposed to be serving the lead, but in overshadowing him we’re left wondering if a greater film was left at the table, one where the Wonderstone character’s better off being marginalized.
Comedy is moving past the egomaniacal lothario, or at least moving deeper. This is no more evident than in television, in shows like Arrested Development and even the finer points of Carell’s own Office run. It’s why it’s harder for a guy like Dane Cook to find traction in film these days: no one wants to watch a film about an old man who bangs becoming and old man who has a heart and decides to bang less. When Burt Wonderstone distracts itself away from that conceit and revels in the wackadoo nature of its setting, it’s a worthy affair. But this is a story you’ve seen time and time again, benefitted by a slightly higher concept than most.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone owes its successes to the efforts of some-but-not-all of its cast. Sadly “Incredible” is a highly subjective term in this case. A fun but forgettable effort.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars