“So this is where old entertainers go to die,” quips the titular once-famous Vegas magician of Don Scardino’s new film, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” when he reaches the lowest point in his career. His remark could also be a fairly accurate, if slightly too harsh, description of the movie itself. Scardino, known best for his work directing “30 Rock,” has made a somewhat less than incredible entrance into the movie industry. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” has a strong enough beginning and ending that almost—but not quite—allow its audience to overlook the flat and hackneyed jokes that pepper the mediocre middle portion of the film.
In many ways, “Burt Wonderstone” feels like a redux of the 2001 comedy “Zoolander” in which the two rivals—Burt Wonderstone and Steve Gray—are no longer male models, but rather Las Vegas magicians. Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) begins the film as an arrogant superstar magician who has been performing the same show for years with his partner and ex-best friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). When Anton is injured during a performance and Burt’s fame is suddenly eclipsed by that of the up-and-coming street performer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey)—whose outrageous stunts have garnered him a strong cult following—the Vegas veteran must fight his way back to the top by himself.
The opening scenes of the film are undeniably entertaining. An extended flashback to Burt’s lonesome childhood may come across as unnecessarily expository, but the jokes are fresh. Carrell and Buscemi seem to be a perfect comedic duo when they burst onto stage in glitzy, spangled outfits and begin dancing awkwardly. Burt’s onstage banter with Anton and his new assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) is no less amusing. The film takes a decidedly negative turn, however, with the arrival of Jim Carrey’s character in the narrative. The edgy, hippie street performer Steve Gray is such an entirely unappealing character that it is hard to understand why he poses any threat to Burt and Anton. Gray’s lines fall flat, and his stunts during the film are, at best, a sort of masochistic slapstick and at worst just utterly disgusting and ridiculous. Even his audiences in the film—much, undoubtedly, like the audience in the theater—seem to be mainly confused or shocked by his performances, not genuinely impressed. With some slight plot alterations, Carrey’s character could have been excised from the script, and the film would not have suffered for it in the least.
The film struggles along for most of its remainder. Many of the jokes that were funny when they first appeared—the casino owner’s inability to remember the age of his son, for example, or Burt’s insistence that Jane’s name is actually that of his previous assistant—are recycled numerous times during the film and are unable to rouse the laughs they previously had. The middle portion of the film is also plagued by short, jumpy scenes that feel jumbled and disconnected. We cut back and forth from the rivalry between Burt and Steve Gray, to the budding romance between Burt and Jane, to Burt and Anton’s struggling friendship, and finally to the mentorship of Burt by Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the now-elderly magician who had inspired Burt to become a magician as a child. This failure to focus on or engage with any one particular relationship in the film makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters besides Burt, creating the feeling that the script simply has too much happening all at once.
The film does, on some level, redeem itself in its final minutes when Burt, Anton, Rance, and Jane all unite to pull off the one trick that had always stumped Burt and Anton as children. The trick itself is hilarious in its absurdity, and the means the magicians use to achieve it are equally ridiculous. The humor in the final portion of the film is also pulled off with far more success than during the rest of the film. When, for example, Wilde’s character pulls a condom out from behind Burt’s ear and he with a sleight of hand promptly switches the standard condom with a Magnum XL, it becomes the most successful gag in the film up to that point. Most importantly, however, the final performance attempts, but only partially succeeds in, tying together the various disconnected plot strands.
Midway through the film, Arkin’s character explains to Burt that when people watch a magician perform, they “want to think what they’re seeing is real magic.” An audience watching a film hopes to experience a similar sense of wonderment and awe, but unfortunately, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” fails to deliver very much movie magic at all.