The only incredible thing about “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is that way it makes Steve Carell so thoroughly and irreparably unlikable. In a film about magic tricks, this is the most difficult feat of all.
Even when Carell is playing characters who are nerdy (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) or needy (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) or clueless (TV’s “The Office”) or just plain odd (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”), there’s usually an inherent decency that shines through and makes him seem relatable, vulnerable, human.
None of those qualities exists within Burt Wonderstone, a selfish and flashy Las Vegas magician who once ruled the Strip alongside his longtime friend and partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), but now finds his act has grown outdated and unpopular. Even within the confines of a comedy sketch, where he probably belongs, Burt would seem one-dimensional and underdeveloped with his hacky jokes and tacky clothes. Stretched out to feature length, the shtick becomes nearly unbearable – until of course, the movie doles out its obligatory comeuppance, followed by redemption, and goes all soft and nice. By then it’s too little, too late.
“Burt Wonderstone” comes to us from director Don Scardino, a television veteran who’s a two-time Emmy-winner for his work on “30 Rock,” and “Horrible Bosses” writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. It has some scattered laughs, many of them courtesy of Jim Carrey as a gonzo, up-and-coming street performer with a taste for pain, clearly modeled after the Criss Angel style of stunt artistry. (The character’s cable TV show is called “Brain Rapist,” if that gives you an idea.) And there is some spark to the scenes between Carell and his “Little Miss Sunshine” co-star Alan Arkin as the master magician who inspired Burt as a lonely child and now lives anonymously at the nursing home where Burt is relegated to doing card tricks.
These small joys are few and far between in a comedy that’s mostly reliant on repetitive sights gags and increasingly desperate one-upmanship.
In theory, we’re supposed to feel for Burt because we see him being bullied in a flashback at the film’s start. The nerdy, neglected child of a hard-working single mom, Burt turned to magic for self-esteem, and found friendship with the like-minded and equally geeky Anton. Their mentor was the old-school Rance Holloway (Arkin), whose moves they watched repeatedly on VHS.
Thirty years later, Burt and Anton are longtime headliners at Bally’s, going through the same bit night after night with little inspiration. For totally unexplained reasons, they hate each other – probably because Burt has become a dismissive, abusive jerk. This is not Carell’s strong suit. Also part of the act is their latest assistant, Jane, although Burt insists on calling her Nicole because her real name simply doesn’t matter to him. The role is a huge waste of Olivia Wilde, who’s stuck playing the supportive “girl,” and isn’t given much chance to show how funny, sexy or smart she truly is.
Burt and Anton find not just their friendship but their careers in jeopardy as Carrey’s daring Steve Gray steals away the fans and attention with more and more outlandish acts: ridiculous stuff like sleeping overnight on hot coals and holding his urine for several days straight. With his long hair, shirtless, sinewy frame and charismatic demeanor, Carrey functions like a manic, subversive Christ figure. Although he’s too old to be playing an upstart, he gives it his all, as always.
But it’s hard to care about how far the duo will fall or whether they can make a comeback – which is never in question – because there’s nothing for us to hold on to as an audience.
And after it’s over, poof! You’ll forget you ever watched it in the first place.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. Running time: 101 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.