Burt Wonderstone is an aggressively obtuse, old-school magician who’s fallen off in favor of mind-melting, street-magic spectacle. Were he a 30 Rock character, he’d be a B-plot bit player who amusingly sends up the self-satisfied culture of celebrity.
On TV — where the mere sight of Steve Carell in ridiculous coifs and couture would be worth five minutes of laughs — Burt Wonderstone might actually be funny. Unfortunately, he’s inflicted upon us for 95 minutes more in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Satirical targets are there for the taking, but the biggest yuks are few and far between — with one perfect sight gag and a handful of expertly scattered, throwaway non sequiturs that were director Don Scardino’s lifeblood on 30 Rock.
Its biggest problem is Michael Scott Syndrome writ large, in which a character’s core becomes chattel for comedy’s sake — so named for another Carell character whose sweet, decent center was occasionally sacrificed for atypically mean, petty jokes.
When we meet Burt, he’s a sweet, put-upon kid using magic as an escape from his bullies and an avenue to a best friend named Anthony. As an adult, he’s a 50-calorie version of Ron Burgundy, an arrogant nincompoop so good at artifice that he can hide the acrimony he now feels for Anton (Steve Buscemi), who has become Burt’s second-banana partner in a Vegas act at Bally’s.
The movie never decides whether it wants to be completely bonkers like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — at times even parroting some of the same punchlines — or settle for a run-of-the-mill redemptive comedy circa 1993. While it didn’t have to be as nasty as Horrible Bosses, the previous script from co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, it could have taken something from that film’s confidence in its comic convictions.
Worse yet, Carell simply can’t muster Burgundy’s bluster. At times, he tightens his vocal cords to sound like Will Ferrell, and the strain proves as visible as it is audible.
If Burt and Anton represent the garish glitz of Siegfried & Roy, Jim Carrey’s Steve Gray embodies Criss Angel’s existential dopiness. In one of the movie’s bolder gags, Gray isn’t merely branded as a mind freak. He’s a “brain rapist,” with #Rapist as his Twitter-trending hashtag. As Burt and Anton trot out timeworn tricks, Steve yanks cards from his cheek, sleeps on hot coals, holds his urine and jams nails in his face.
Carrey’s unleashes his implausibly rubbery face with full force on Wonderstone. But a little of him goes a long way, and the many cutaways to his grotesque stunts do less to establish him as a strong competitor to Burt than to justify whatever cash the studio paid Carrey to co-star.
With his crowds diminishing, Burt and Anton turn to their own high-profile stunt on the Vegas Strip that quickly spirals downward into the dissolution of their partnership. Fired from Bally’s, Burt must, yes, rediscover the real allure of magic if he’s going to come out on top.
Although Burt Wonderstone lacks a murderer’s row of supporting comic players, its cast ensures some uproarious laughs in fits and starts.
Unsurprisingly, Alan Arkin slays every line as Rance Holloway, Burt’s veteran muse, who’s now rotting in a retirement home for stage performers where there is, as is there is everywhere in Vegas, a proliferation of slots and tables. (When told his at-home magic kit was Burt’s inspiration, he sneers, “I’ll give you your money back.”) And the unexpectedly late James Gandolfini is the Alec Baldwin-esque ace up the film’s sleeve as Doug Munny, the CEO of Bally’s who promises guests pampering “like an enormous baby” as he plans to open his new vainglorious hotel, Doug.
Even at a scant 100 minutes, Burt’s journey feels so long that 20 minutes remain just when the film should start to wrap things up. Then again, perhaps the filmmakers were in no hurry to strike the terrible note on which the film ends. It involves a trite, contemptuous “illusion” from Burt that the movie wants to feel both sweetly triumphant and mercilessly satirical. It’s just the film’s ultimate indulgence of hocus pocus in which the laughs disappear.
The Blu-ray transfer is serviceable, if unremarkable — the detailed 1080p image showing the (certainly intentional) caking of bronzer and makeup on Carell’s face and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track front-focused as comedy Blu-rays often are.
Extras include: nearly a half-hour of deleted scenes; a four-minute gag reel; Steve Gray Uncut, with Carrey in character for a faux performance; and Making Movie Magic, in which David Copperfield (who has a brief cameo) shares the backstage secrets of some of the tricks displayed in the film.