Same ol’ tricks
Steve Carell and company have a few laughs up their sleeves
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.