The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is an odd film about the change in magic from old school tricks and illusion to elaborate and dangerous stunts of endurance during the 1990’s, and the petty jealousies that go on behind the curtain, that feels at least a decade late. Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who gave us the equally uneven Horrible Bosses) the script is inconsistent, especially during the movie’s third act, but it delivers a surprising number of laughs when it embraces the sheer absurdity of its premise and characters with a gleeful zeal.
The film stars Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as a pair of old school Las Vegas magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton (think Siegfried & Roy without the tigers) whose act and decades of friendship have seen better days. The pair’s partnership comes to an end when popular new street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey as a mix of David Blaine and Criss Angel) forces the pair into uncharted territory doing dangerous stunts that leave Anton severely injured and Burt out on the street looking for a new job.
Although obviously a fan of old school magic and grand illusion, Goldstein and Daley’s script pokes quite a bit of fun at magicians whose acts haven’t adapted over time. That good-natured poking is far less severe, however, than the story’s take on Grey whose obnoxious stunts (not peeing for an entire week, burning a message into his flesh in front of children) are only outshone by his dickish personality that makes the completely self-centered Wonderstone feel somewhat likable by comparison.
Olivia Wilde stars as Burt and Anton’s assistant in a role that allows her to show off an unexpected level of physical comedy but is mostly unnecessary to the plot except for a forced love story angle that never quite works. There are also quite a few familiar faces including James Gandolfini as the casino’s owner who could care less about magic or his son’s (Joshua Erenberg) upcoming birthday party, Gillian Jacobs makes a cameo as one of Burt’s groupies, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, and Michael Herbig show up as other magicians, and magician David Copperfield makes an appearance playing himself.
The film gets into trouble about the point where Wonderstone hits rock bottom as the story becomes yet another version of the basic Hollywood mainstay where the selfish schmuck of a main character learns his lesson and rediscovers his love of magic (or whatever he does for a living) and friendship after facing adversity. Thankfully there are enough laughs thrown in by the likes of Arkin, Wilde, Carey, and Buscemi (whose character has his own Third World misadventure) that keep the film from grinding completely to a halt.
I’ll give The Incredible Burt Wonderstone credit for making a strong comeback by re-embracing its wackiness by ending the film with Wonderstone’s greatest (and most insane) illusion yet. Although uneven, at times far too predictable, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone delivers far more laughs (and even a little bit of movie magic) than I expected. It’s not the kind of film you need to rush out to the theater to see, but its spirit and ridiculous ending left me with a smile on my face as I exited the theater. For an early March release that’s a magic trick worthy of at least a little applause.