Like the titular Burt’s sleight of hand, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” tricks you into thinking it will pull out more laughs than it really does. TV veteran director Don Scardino and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (who put their heads together for the darkly funny “Horrible Bosses”) have up-to-the-task performers in a surefire concept that should deliver the laughing goods, but the material only musters up a mild, goofy throwaway. When the actors get to perform their illusions and masochistic stunts (CG or not), it catches some fire, but when it goes all soft and bland (as most mainstream comedies tend to do), the results are amiable at best and inhibited at worst.
The 1982-set prologue, with Young Burt (Mason Cook) being picked on and then discovering his passion for magic with his first magic kit, seems like it might go the pseudo-earnest Adam Sandler route but it has a true sweetness. “Nobody likes you and nobody will ever like you,” says a bully to Burt before meeting his soon-to-be best friend, Anton (Luke Vanek), who’s fascinated with magic as well. Twenty years later, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are a sensational Vegas act, performing magic tricks that earn the “oohs” and “aahs” of packed houses at Bally’s Hotel and Casino. Unfortunately over the next decade, these entertainers grow mechanical and irrelevant, their friendship growing stale as well.
Instead of following the advice of the Bally’s manager, Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), in doing something fresh, Burt and Anton fail to up the ante of their act and go their separate ways. Without Anton, Burt’s one-man show is embarrassing and his lavish lifestyle catches up to him, so he’s forced to take on pathetic gigs. To make matters worse, a new, cutting-edge sort of illusionist by the name of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), dubbed the “Brain Rapist,” is hogging all the limelight with viral videos. He’s more of an endurance street stuntman than an old-fashioned magician, holding in his urine for twelve days, spending a whole night on a bed of hot coals, and acting as a human pinata, but it gets the Vegas crowd’s attention. Can the washed-up Burt make a comeback, reunite with Anton, and pull off their best trick of all? Gee, what do you think?
Obviously, plot isn’t the major draw for a comedy with big-time funnymen like Carell and Carrey when it satisfies on the level of its bread and butter. And every now and then, there are flashes of real comedic surprise and inspired zaniness. A simple sight gag with Lady Luck Hotel & Casino earns a guffaw. There’s one wickedly funny gag in which Anton pays a visit to a poor African village and hands out magic kits instead of food and clean water. It’s also fun to watch Burt and Steve one-up one another at a kid’s birthday party. Otherwise, the script is slapped together and more often cartoonish than funny.
The central problem is its very own headliner. Though it’s a hoot to see Carell just show up as a dandified magician with that cheesy grin, an unironic head of hair, and a velvety, sequined costume, Burt is an unlikable, obnoxious putz. Yes, he’s supposed to be presumptuous, sexist, and pompous after fame has gone to his head, but when his supposed vulnerability comes in and we’re supposed to care, nobody is buying it. Characters can’t just turn on a dime when Page 50 in the script calls for it and the music score hits a minor key; they have to earn it. Alas, Burt is just a two-dimensional jerk and it seems like nothing is at stake for him. Sure, Anton is a second banana who deserves the “incredible” title, too, but even the always-interesting Buscemi gets robbed of much screen time after the characters’ falling-out.
No offense to the Steves, but Carrey, with a goth look and a mane of hair, runs away with the film. In a story about rise-and-fall-and-rise-agains, the comedy actor taps into his star-making rubbery shtick, sorely missing since his dramatic departure and likable, albeit milquetoast, turn in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” As Steve Gray, he injects an unhinged weirdness and unpredictability that the rest of the film could have benefited from. Carrey’s Steve Gray, clearly in the gimmicky showmanship modes of David Blaine and Criss Angel/”Mindfreak,” luckily serves up the most absurdist, even wince-inducing bits.
Also, Alan Arkin, as old-school magician Rance Holloway who now lives in an assisted living home, underplays the role and that style works for many of his verbal punch lines. Olivia Wilde, always beautiful, makes the best of her role as Jane, a stage crew worker who suddenly becomes Burt’s assistant. “I worshipped you for 10 years and you’ve just made me hate you in 60 seconds,” Jane admits before naturally becoming Burt’s love interest because the script can’t find a smarter reason to have her around. Surprisingly, she displays some comic timing right out of the gate when she’s first pushed on stage as assistant “Nicole.” She and Carell get to sell one amusing scene of foreplay with magic, too.
Perhaps the film should have rethought its focal point and called itself “The Sadistic Steve Gray.” While it doesn’t fall dead as a doornail (and there is a gag with Carrey hammering in a nail with his head), there are more smiles than bona fide laughs, which are too scattered. More disappointing than anything, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” feels more like a warm-up than a featured act. However, we are saved the best laugh for last, a trick in making the whole audience disappear and a hilarious look at how the team pulls it off. Too bad the rest of the comedy will disappear from your memory.
100 min., rated PG-13.