Had The Incredible Burt Wonderstone arrived as a lengthy skit on SNL or maybe a one-off thirty minute sit-com on regular TV it might have worked, but as a full-length feature film, after a few initial laughs, Wonderstone borders on insufferable.
Steve Carell is Burt, a Las Vegas magician. He and his professional partner and childhood friend, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are superstars on the strip. They’ve been there for years, performing in the same hotel theatre designed especially for them, but there’s a problem; they’ve performed the same show with the same jokes and the same tired routines for years, and now it’s stale. Plus, there’s growing competition for their audience. Outside, in the streets, using guerilla tactics to garner attention is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a magician – kind of – whose outrageous and dangerous stunts threaten to change the way patrons want their magic.
Part of the problem is the character of Burt himself. We’re introduced to Wonderstone as a child in 1982 who takes to magic tricks as a way of maybe being popular. It turns out that the nice, fresh-faced kid we saw running away from bullies after school and practicing card tricks in his mother’s basement might have become a huge success in Las Vegas but he’s also turned into a loathsome prig of a man. There’s no reason to like Burt Wonderstone; he’s selfish, demanding, unreasonable, sexist and bears no resemblance to the likable kid we saw in the opening sequences. Of course, the point of the story is Wonderstone’s redemption – he loses everything, including the friendship of his childhood buddy – but by the time he becomes humble your patience with him may have fizzled a long time ago.
Another problem is Jim Carrey’s character. You don’t know how to take him. His street side acts, recorded on video for the Internet, are initially funny because of how obviously absurd they are, but with each new ‘performance’ his dangerous stunts lose their humor and develop into something nothing short of annoying. “That was the worst thing I’ve seen in my life,” states Alan Arkin as an old-time magician after witnessing one of Carrey’s tricks. “And I saw my children born.”
Only Olivia Wilde as the magician’s assistant Jane has any qualities resembling something relatable. She’s a likable, grounding agent in the middle of illogical, TV style mayhem. Sadly, the character appears only intermittently. There’s a moment when Jane displays a talent for magic herself, displaying a slight-of-hand ability to rival the professional magicians, but it’s something that is never developed. One has to wonder if something was cut during the editing process. After all, why show us what she can do so well as if it’s a plot point about to take things in another direction, then never mention it again?
Director Don Scardino structures the film as though he’s stringing together a series of TV skits. The spotty, uneven rhythm is only intermittently funny and it’s overall silliness ultimately doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Perhaps if the film’s device had presented the story as characters who had somehow magically stepped out of a TV set and were now walking around in the real world but behaving as if they’re still in a sit-com while others look on, bemused, it might have been easier to accept what they’re doing. As it stands, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is sadly anything but.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 100 minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)