Same ol’ tricks

Steve Carell and company have a few laughs up their sleeves

Where’s their tiger?

Where’s their tiger?

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey. Directed by Don Scardino. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Steve Carell’s gift for wringing offbeat comedy out of milquetoast characters with a streak of minor-league weasel in them gets a little off track in his new movie, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

The eponymous Burt (Carell) is a glitzy Vegas magician whose career runs aground on a double whammy—he has a sudden and disastrous break-up with his longtime stage partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), and the X-treme gonzo newcomer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey at his most demonic) is stealing all of his thunder in face-to-face confrontations.

The screenplay (authored by a team of four writers) eventually gets around to making Burt’s story into a rise-and-fall tale with (spoiler alert, sorta) some semblance of recovery and redemption toward the end. But the resolution of these plot points is half-hearted at best.

What the film does best is more a matter of jokes, gags, comic bits, absurd stunts, strokes of satire, and whatever other silly business that turns up, willy-nilly, along the way. It has movie-scale production values and a story arc of sorts all right, but most of that superstructure turns out to be little more than a convenient place to hang a string of somewhat disparate comedy sketches, not all of which are particularly well-conceived.

Director Don Scardino and his production designers (sets by Keith Cunningham, costumes by Dayna Pink) have some fun with lavish parodies of Vegas-style glamour, and there’s a big, attractive supporting cast on hand to provide some agreeable padding and relief for a story that never really gets beyond first and second gear, emotionally.

Alan Arkin has another piquant oldster role—as over-the-hill magician Rance Holloway, whose cheesy instructional tapes provided Burt, a bullied child, with his introduction to “magic.” James Gandolfini does a chummy turn as the possibly mobbed-up (and “Trumped”) casino mogul, Doug Munny.

Olivia Wilde holds up bravely as Jane, who is the utility infielder in this cast of characters—starstruck stage hand, comic magic-act ingénue, neglected assistant, would-be magician, and oh-what-the-heck formulaic “love interest” for the improbably narcissistic Burt. Jay Mohr is game too—playing Rick the Implausible, a magician/ comic who stumbles over his own punch lines, if and when he actually gets them out.

But Carell/Wonderstone barely registers as any kind of fully realized character, comic or otherwise. Even with his proven talents, Carell has no place to go with a character whose extremes of naïveté and callous egotism, of arrogant ambition and childish sentiment, take such arbitrary and willfully absurd form.

Maybe only Carrey could have made comic/dramatic sense of those bizarre extremes. But he’s got the two-dimensional villain/nemesis role here, and under these muddled circumstances, that’s more than enough for him to steal the show without half-trying.