Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The (United States, 2013)

March 14, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Poster

When I watch a comedy like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I find myself wondering whether plot and character development should be considered in an evaluation of the production. After all, the movie has been made with the intention of making people laugh. That being said, however, there are plenty of comedies that use narrative elements to enhance the humor. This isn't one of them, and the material isn't sufficiently funny to allow me to forgive the film's feeble storyline and two-dimensional inhabitants.

At the core of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a satire of Vegas magicians. While it gets in the occasional amusing jab, most of the punches are pulled (excepting when Jim Carrey is on screen). The film has the feel of something afraid to offend, and that's always a bad approach for a lampoon. When roasting a subject, the oven should be turned all the way up but, even at its best, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone never gets the temperature above the level needed to warm up leftovers. And it's unfortunate that the funniest gag is left to the very end.

Steve Carell appears to have outgrown these kinds of films, although he returns to them from time-to-time. His work in movies like Hope Springs and Seeking a Friend at the End of the World have shown him to be a capable dramatic performer. Shoehorning him into a production that could have been assembled from scraps on a studio shelf does him a disservice. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone reminds me of some of the throw-away movies made by Will Ferrell after his big breakthrough of 2003-04. Still, if the screenplay misuses Carell, that's nothing compared to how it treats Olivia Wilde (as a generic love interest), James Gandolfini (as a casino mogul), and Alan Arkin (as an old-time magician): they walk on, say their lines, then collect their paychecks. The only one truly invested in his performance is Jim Carrey, whose portrayal of the David Blaine-inspired street magician Steve Gray mixes Carrey's old-school zaniness with an unsettling dark intensity. He's almost worth the price of admission. Almost but not quite.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens with a brief prologue set in 1982 that shows how a young Burt (who will be played as an adult by Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi as an adult) become best friends and learn how to perform magic tricks. 20 years later, they're a Vegas sensation, playing to a packed house every night. But the next decade is hard on their reputation and friendship. Burt has become jaded and bored and, when his partnership with Anton falls apart, he proves himself unable to survive solo. He ends up doing magic at old age homes and kids' birthday parties. The bulk of the movie is about Burt rediscovering his mojo and beating out Gray in a competition to see who can offer a crowd the bigger "wow!" factor.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone might have worked better if crafted more as a series of loosely connected sketches. The material cries out for the Christopher Guest approach; its determination to fit neatly into what Hollywood expects from a PG-13 comedy dooms it to relentless mediocrity. The movie offers just enough jokes not to fall into the "wretchedly unwatchable" category but it's as forgettable as a motion picture can be. This represents long-time TV veteran director Don Scardino's leap from the small screen to the big screen and the result is a soft and safe film that attacks with baby teeth instead of fangs and reminds us that March really isn't a much better month for movies than January or February.

Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The (United States, 2013)

Director: Don Scardino
Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin
Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Cinematography: Matthew Clark
Music: Lyle Workman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1