The opening minutes of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone are a pretty convincing depiction of how, very probably, most show-biz careers are spawned.
The title character, though he hasn’t yet given himself that grand moniker, is chased down the street by a gang of bullies on his 10th birthday, in 1982. Their gift to him is a punch in the stomach and a blunt reminder that he’s a loser who no one will ever like.
His gift from his mother, however, is better: a Rance Holloway magic set with an instructional videocassette in which the great prestidigitator assures him that everybody loves a magician. Burt and his only friend Anton build on what they learn from this basic stuff, and soon they’re partners in a stage act.
Burt and Anton are played, in this prologue, by the excellent Mason Cook and Luke Vanek, respectively. Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi take over when they hit adulthood, and their Vegas act, full of elaborate sets and huge hokey props, is a fixture at Bally’s, with its own theatre. Ten years into their run there, Burt has been turned by boredom and repetition into a hateful jackass, snarling contemptuously at everyone who works with him, including the long-suffering Anton. He lives in joyless luxury in a casino penthouse, where even his nightly seductions of comely volunteers from the audience have become a carefully-rehearsed routine.
But like any other star, Burt finds himself in decline, threatened by the newfangled stylings of the insufferable Steve Gray, “Brain Rapist” (Jim Carrey), who wows the crowds with extreme “street magic” stunts, often involving revolting abuse of his own body. Burt and Anton’s act—and friendship—fall apart when they try to compete with this approach, and Burt finds himself unemployed, broke and at the reluctant mercy of his disgusted assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), herself an aspiring magician.
The rest of the movie, rather snappily directed by TV veteran Don Scardino from a script by several hands, including John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks, is about Burt’s attempts to resurrect himself, both as a performer and a person. It’s a perfectly legitimate template for a showbiz story, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone entertained me, and made me laugh quite a bit.
But it’s marred, for me seriously, by a high degree of cloddish, heavy-handed shtick of what I suppose might be called the Hangover school: mean-spirited slapstick and obvious, telegraphed jokes. There are lengthy set-pieces, like Burt and Anton’s stunt in a suspended booth, or Anton’s imbecilic charitable efforts, that seem meant to convulse us with hilarity. But they just go thud, like a failed a magic trick.
It isn’t just that these scenes aren’t funny. It’s that they’re not consistent with the characterizations. Anton, for instance, is supposed to be the smart, sensitive half of the pair, so the gag about his misguided interactions with Third World people plays particularly dumb.
This side of the material also feels disingenuous in the face of what the movie seems to be championing—corny but comparatively genteel showmanship over shock. It struck me, by the way, that Burt and Anton’s show could still play in Vegas to full houses, and leave them well and unironically satisfied. (I’d certainly go.)
What saves the movie is the sensational cast. Despite the unhilarious nature of the stuff he’s given to do, Carrey isn’t bad at all in his Criss Angel send-up. James Gandolfini is very funny as the dull-souled Bally’s honcho, and Buscemi is always easy to like.
As for Carrell, he’s about as poised a leading man as you’ll find in American movies right now. He has suavity and charm balanced with an accessible everyman quality and a comedic fearlessness. His best moment here is the pleasure Burt registers, quietly but deeply, when he meets his old idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin in full curmudgeon mode) in a retirement home—it’s the point at which Burt starts the trudge back from Assholedom, and it gives a hint of the movie that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have been.
But then, the potentially touching scene in which Burt and Anton make up is thrown away on overplayed and way overextended mock-sniveling. Carrell and Buscemi both deserve better than this, but alas, they’re complicit in it. It’s a lousy trick they’ve played on themselves.