Rekindling the Magic and Their Act
I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but I’m fortunate enough to imagine the arc of someone’s weekend there, marveling at the spectacle of fluorescence down the boulevard, waking up with empty pockets and regret. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as The Hangover to feel the daily monotony of street performances and cabaret renditions sinking in and under your skin. Then imagine living as a performer, dancing and singing identically every night, trying to impress a fresh audience under the guise that your current performance has the same zest and zeal as the first.
This is one of the existential journeys that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have taken more seriously, but this is a comedy, so why examine anything too closely? The eponymous character played by Steve Carrell dons a bedazzled jumpsuit and Liberace wig with his longtime subordinate partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), two magicians with their own Vegas show. They are fulfilling their life-long dreams formed ever since the similarly bullied souls found each other at the lunch table. Inspired by a magic kit video from Rance Holloway played by a spirited Alan Arkin (one of his tricks is the invisible skateboarder), the two burst with an elementary passion and joy, making little things disappear, and tinkering with the box instructions.
Cut some thirty years later and their ingenuity has landed them their own magic show complete with vanishing acts and switcharoos for a bottom-line, foul-mouthed hotel owner (James Gandolfini). But the duo’s relationship is anything but its former self. Burt is an egocentric womanizer and Anton is his apologist for the emotional collateral damage Burt exerts to stagehands and colleagues. It’s a shame Buscemi isn’t used to his capability, often the straight man to Carrell’s tasteless jokes which come at his character’s own expense. This is the kind of comedy tale that has evolved recently, built on tragic plot points that are given put downs and wisecracks for the audience to remember its genre and forget how dark a picture like this could be.
The magical duo, confined by their unchanging act, soon becomes threatened after they see street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) garner large crowds on television. Gray, the Criss Angel stand-in who uses witty synonyms for his tagline “Mind Freak” is not the sleight of hand stage magician Burt has trained to become. His acts are more outrageous, more obscene, more magnetizing to watch, and also use more body parts. He’s currently the fresh act of magicians and the Incredible Burt and Anton begins to lose steam. Jane (Olivia Wilde) joins the team, a former stagehand with her own magician aspirations, but becomes little more than a female prop to continue a show with dwindling crowds.
Its plot becomes as plodding as Wonderstone’s monotonous theme music “Abracadabra,” that most surely will have you mindlessly reciting it for the next few days. David Blaine-type stunts go epically wrong for the former schoolmates in an effort to regain attraction. The two are out of their league, but of course Burt refuses to see reality, even as their show is cancelled. The film settles nicely into its troped second act, with a disheveled protagonist on the outs and a fresh face on the rise, quite similar to Anchorman or any other Will Ferrell-centric standard.
Carrey, the master of physical comedy, does not disappoint in this medium, but after his first encounter, his comedy rarely overpowers the fact that Steve Gray is all that he appears: as sleazy and as selfish as Burt. So someone must make things right, drum up spirits again, and reinvigorate a lost magician. With help from an aging Rance Holloway, Jane takes on this task and eventually becomes romantically linked, which is not so much surprising as it is dissatisfying. Wilde, who is perfectly capable of being funny and carrying a film, must play second fiddle and sometimes third, remaining submissive, even when she reaches a final glory.
That’s because this is Steve Carrell’s movie, and as much as director Don Scardino, whose career is extensively in television, tries to form sympathy—Steve Gray shoving a puppy down Burt’s pants for example— we are devoid of it. The predictable narrative might work fine on the half hour 30 Rock, but Scardino, along with writers Jonathon Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is content to hope that a feature length keeps the same formula. By the time we should be rooting on a comeback for Burt, we’d rather see him fail because he has done nothing to prove his tanned, hair sprayed, and Maxwell Smart stylized voice worth. Carrey’s Gray, covered in tattoos and straightened long hair, at least has personality.
The final magic trick to save Burt and Anton is only funny because of how preposterous it is to imagine, and later seen in the credits, how it’s actually performed. Part of the great fun of magic is that a magician never tells his tricks, and thus that momentary mesmerizing reveal contains all of its splendor and mystery. The illusions in this film feel like a friend incorrectly guessing, “is this your card?” over and over. We’re revealed its tricks to get a laugh, but like any magician declassifying his act, we are left with more disappointment than any real wonder.