The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Director:  Don Scardino
Starring: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone feels like a card trick. You know that you’re being fooled, you know that the trick is pretty simple at heart, and you might even suspect exactly how it’s being done, but when the magician has craft and personality, you’re still entertained, in the way a familiar old song on the radio can charm you, get you to bob your head to the four-four beat, without really moving you. Which might be a problem if you had to pay ten bucks to hear the song.

This is the story of a man who has made it to early middle age as a shallow shell of a human, and he must lose everything to grow on the inside so that he can win back his friends, his status, and the love of an improbably beautiful younger woman. If we framed the beats of this script in outline form and took out specific references to setting such as “Las Vegas,” and “magician,” you’d be describing about 200 previous movies.

What perhaps saves the movie is that the people involved are great dancers, even to the must uninspired rhythm. There are several nice turns in the script that don’t count as surprises but manage to put nice specificity to fairly generic plot points. Carell is very good at playing the pompous but ultimately vulnerable blowhard, though I much prefer the relatable, more nuanced Steve Carell of The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Date Night to the blustering asshole he perfected on “The Daily Show.” Buscemi, however, does schmuck, goodhearted or otherwise, as well as anyone in the business. Olivia Wilde is plucky in the role of Girl Who Must Dislike the Hero Until She Must Like Him. If there’s a breakaway performance, it’s a gonzo turn from Jim Carrey, who plays an insanely self-abusive street musician whose guerrilla performances are leeching audiences from the tired casino-theater act of Carell and Buscemi. And a likable bit performance by Alan Arkin, who brings the only real passion this film has (besides Carey’s firm commitment to enjoyably intense weirdness).

What torpedos the production is that it has only a confused facsimile of a heart. The film is about the collapse and resurrection of the two magicians’ lifelong friendship, but this isn’t served in the least. When the duo breaks up, Buscemi simply vanishes from the film, while Carell hits financial and personal bottom. Then he returns and they decide to be friends in a comically emotional moment that all but deliberately has no real emotion. We’re also meant to understand that Olivia Wilde goes from being a victim of Carell’s sexual harassment to falling in love with him because, well, at roughly 80 minutes in, that’s where we need to be. Similarly, there’s no reason to like or root for Carell’s character in any capacity. So the thoughtful viewer won’t.

Of note: The screenplay has four individually credited writers, and that many writers (plus any number whose contributions didn’t earn a credit with the SWG arbitrators) never bodes well.

Also, not only are many of the film’s “magic illusions” obvious works of camera or digital tricks, such that any sense of wonder at the sleight-of-hand elements is killed, but the final trick that gets the heroes back on top is improbable, impossible, unethical and illegal. In a word: Stupid. But the filmmakers don’t care, because this isn’t about the story so much as the story rhythms. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a kind of movie rather than an actual, individual movie.

Thus, there are a number of enjoyable scenes and performances in this film, and if someone drags you to see it, your time won’t be entirely wasted. But wait until you’re dragged.