'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone': Wonderfully funny but falls short of incredible
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Steve Carell is an intelligent, likable and frequently inspired comic actor, but is he a movie star? He got more props for his supporting role as a droll, sympathetic therapist in last year's little-seen "Hope Springs" than he did for his lead turn as nice nebbish trying for apocalyptic romance in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," but that might have been the movie more than him. He certainly does shine brighter when surrounded by superb ensembles, and his new picture, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," gives him a lot of first-rate talent to work against: Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde and Jim Carrey. And that's just the top line. Even the bit roles are filled by first-raters such as Brad Garrett and Jay Mohr. But while "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" has its share of engaging-to-great bits, including, truth to tell, one gag performed by Carrey that made me laugh louder and longer than I have in a movie theater for some time (people started looking at me funny), it falls kind of flat as a complete moviegoing experience.
The relatively trite story line is part of it. Young boy Burt, tormented by bullies, tries to up his social acceptability quotient by learning magic. Soon he makes even nerdier young Anton his partner. Cut to decades later, and Burt and Anton (now played by Carell and Buscemi) have their own theater in Vegas. They're phenomenally successful, they now can barely stand each other and Burt is an obnoxious out-of-touch womanizer who boasts to potential conquests of owning the biggest bed in Vegas: "If the phone rings at the other side of the bed, I can't get there in time to pick it up." Soon Burt and Anton's ticket sales start sliding, thanks to "street magician" Steve Gray (Carrey) a Criss Angel/David Blaine parody who seems more into self-mutilation than prestidigitation. (He refers to himself as a "Brain Rapist.") After a stunt aimed at Gray's core demo goes hilariously wrong, the team splits up. Down on his luck, Burt is compelled to relearn what he loved about magic in the first place, with the help of an aging mentor (Arkin) and a former assistant whose idolatry of him was vitiated by his gross advances (Olivia Wilde).
It's nothing you haven't heard or seen before, and you can likely guess how it all turns out. This collection of conventions doesn't go down easy, though, because, like "Identity Theft" but to a lesser and, hence, more tolerable extent, "Burt Wonderstone" can't make up its mind as to what it is. The behavior Carell's character indulges in before his inevitable redemption seems so ingrained in his being that the redemption is completely unconvincing. To have him act as crass as he does in the movie's front section is what gives a lot of the gags their juice, but it also makes "Wonderstone" feel like a bit of a cartoon movie. Then things toggle back to a point at which the viewer's expected to feel sympathy or something like it. It's head-spinning. The director of the movie is Don Scardino, a veteran of the series "30 Rock," which itself scored big by playing a balancing act with knowing pop-culture caricature and real-world observational humor. But that kind of thing seems to work better in the context of 30-minute episodes than a movie of about three times that length. And truth to tell, the writing on "30 Rock" is a lot sharper than what screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley conjured up from a story they are co-credited with Tyler Mitchell and Chad Kultgen on.
There are some stretches in which the movie settles into a nice groove (particularly the first scenes between Carell and Arkin) that suggests the moviemakers could have gone for conventional credibility and come up with something equally funny. But then there's an ostentatiously winking bit, or an off-ramp into humor that skirts the who-cares tastelessness of the "Hangover" movies, and you're in a different movie. Again. I'm all for bold experimentation in comedy, or any other genre, so I don't want to be misunderstood as demanding a consistency in the hobgoblin-of-small-minds sense. But when you're throwing anything against the wall to see if it sticks, that's different. And the desperation shows. That said, when "Burt Wonderstone" is funny, it's real funny, as in the aforementioned Carrey gag, which is part of the movie's climax and is very easy to spot.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.