For a story about magicians, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is short on magic.
By DAVID FRESE
The Kansas City Star
Too few awe-inspiring illusions. Even fewer sympathetic characters. In a film about people who perform death-defying stunts, the last thing you want to inspire is a yawn.
Steve Carell plays the titular Wonderstone, the diva half of a pair of famous Vegas illusionists. He and his boyhood chum, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), have been performing together since they were kids. Now that theyre at the top of their game, theyre both bored.
The packed houses soon begin to empty, however, as audiences are attracted to the lunacy of street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). The self-described brain rapist holds his urine for days on end and pulls playing cards from flesh wounds.
Burt calls Grays shock tactics monkey porn, but Anton takes the competition as a sign that they should freshen up their act. Burt is reluctant to step out of his comfort zone. After all, he has grown rich, and women still are eager to sleep with him.
The film tries to be the Talladega Nights of riches-to-rags magician stories. The similarities to Will Ferrells NASCAR comedy are freakishly many it starts with the character as a boy, he and his pal become wildly successful, Burt faces financial ruin because of a weird competitor and tries to regain his mojo with the help of his father figure.
But Wonderstone is missing an important ingredient: empathy.
We see Burt as a bullied boy and, shortly thereafter, as a wealthy celebrity, with little in-between time showing how he came to be a petulant ass. So when Burt loses everything, we have little cause to care for him. The only reason to like Burt is hes played by Steve Carell. After all, everybody likes Steve Carell.
But weve become accustomed to the actor digging a little deeper in films such as Crazy, Stupid, Love or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. His Burt is just a mashup of his other characters from TV and film. Seeing him in such a shallow role is a disappointment.
All the players around him are pretty good, though. A long-haired and abtastic Carrey is weirdly understated as extreme illusionist Gray. As a casino owner, James Gandolfini almost completely sheds his Tony Soprano persona simply by wearing a blond hairpiece and dragging out the pronunciation of a few ing words. Jay Mohr plays against type as a starstruck fellow magician. And Alan Arkin, as usual, breathes much-needed life into nearly every scene hes in as Burts mentor, Rance Holloway.
But Olivia Wilde (The Change-Up, fiancee of KCs Jason Sudeikis) occasionally outperforms them all as magicians assistant Jane. Her story is the most compelling she grew up wanting to be a magician but battled sexism and stage fright. Early on shes locked in a box, dodging both swords and the advances of Burt. Its the strongest chemistry between two actors in the entire film.
The film has just a handful of funny moments, but four credited screenwriters, including Horrible Bosses scribe Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley of Bones (he cameos as an EMT). Director Don Scardino is a TV vet (30 Rock, Law & Order), and sometimes the movie has that sitcom feel. An early scene of Burt and Antons big stage illusion is focused tight on one character rather than the whole stage, making the trick appear to be nothing more than fancy camera work.
Burt Wonderstone is spectacularly unexceptional in nearly every way, save one: Its a Steve Carell movie that didnt make good use of Steve Carell.
How that possibly could happen is a true mystery.
Contact entertainment editor David Frese at email@example.com, 816-234-4463 or on Twitter @DavidFrese.