Film Review: ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’

Steve Carell plays one of the dueling magicians in the dueling magicians picture "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," out today. CREDIT: Ben Glass
Steve Carell plays one of the dueling magicians in the dueling magicians picture “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
CREDIT: Ben Glass

‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’
Director: Don Scardino
Stars: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is an inoffensive Steve Carell vehicle, with breaks for supporting cast scene-stealing. As the title Las Vegas magician/institution, Carell’s a selfish egomaniac, going through the motions with much-nicer assistant/lifelong friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Their longstanding dominance is threatened by a new kind of anti-magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who looks like the regrettably durable Criss Angel and, like endurance artist David Blaine. Performing under the name the “Brain Rapist,” his stunts have less to do with sleight of hand than sadomasochism.

Burt and Anton fail at one-upping Blaine’s stunt of hanging in a glass cube for 35 hours. They aim for a week but last 20 minutes suspended at 100 feet. This culminates in a literal and figurative fall from bankability. Anton splits while Burt rediscovers his love of magic at a nursing home under the tutelage of childhood idol Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin). Anton and Burt reunite, but can they retake their rightful place from Steve?

The casting power relations’ are the opposite of the characters’. Since his 2005 breakout/showcase “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell’s been (with shockingly few exceptions) a consistently profitable draw in adult and family comedies. Carrey isn’t nearly as dominant as he was in his decade-long prime, and the 51-year-old devoted considerable weight loss to achieving a sufficiently lean physique. He’s a comeback kid playing the new dominant threat, and Carrey’s beautifully committed to selling grotesque stunts: serving as a human pinata, burning his flesh with cake candles to spell out a birthday wish, driving a nail through a table with his head.

The standard three-act redemption arc has Burt fall from grandeur to washed-up pathos, then winding up back on top, having learned a valuable lesson. It’s shoddy but amiable enough to envision having a comfortable cable afterlife, with just enough grace notes from performers performing tried and true routines to prevent torpor from setting in. Carell preens (he doesn’t even try to sell momentary humbleness), with interruptions for vulgarian casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) to strut, and for Arkin to bark at people. (Buscemi stands back and looks meek.)

There’s satire on the fringes. The opening act gags find Burt objectifying and harassing assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). He apologizes for casual misogyny, and the film then moves on to Gray abusing himself. In the final act, Burt and Anton’s career-restoring trick (which shouldn’t be spoiled) inflicts a pain on the audience, which is what Blaine’s fans deserve for egging on physical self-destruction as spectacle.


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