Professional magicians will always avoid performing the same trick twice. Obviously, this prevents the crowd from catching on to the secret, but more importantly, it maintains the sense of wonder – seeing things again diminishes their impact. It’s a concept the makers of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone have forgotten – its best tricks have been given away in the marketing, and there’s not much else up its sleeve.
Young Albert is a sweet, bullied kid who gets a magic set for his birthday. His interest in magic attracts a new friend, Anton, and thirty years later the pair have become superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). But time has changed Burt – he’s vain, ill-tempered, and spends most of his energy bedding the female volunteers from the audience.
Enter Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), self-styled “brain rapist”, who is winning fans with his bizarre, violent stunt magic. To recapture their audience, Burt and Anton try a stunt of their own which fails miserably, ending their relationship and landing Burt on the skids. With the help of ex-assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his childhood magic hero Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), Burt tries to reclaim his dignity, if not his star status, by competing with other entertainers for a Vegas hotelier’s (James Gandolfini) new headline spot.
Big budget magic is a world of self-importance, ripe for parody, and in that respect Burt Wonderstone succeeds. Though you could probably predict many of the jokes, there are still some clever ideas here, sending up such varied performers as Siegfried & Roy, Criss Angel, David Blaine, and David Copperfield (who actually appears in the movie and was a technical advisor). But once you’ve seen the commercials or the trailer, you’ve already seen all the best gags, and they don’t land twice. There’s a couple of hidden gems in what Anton gets up to during his separation from Burt, and the logistical details of the final magic trick, but they’re both treated as throwaways. What’s left just doesn’t reach the heights.
But Burt Wonderstone‘s biggest problem is, well, Burt Wonderstone. The egotist Burt is unaccountably mean, and is so off-putting a character that by the time the plot mechanically forces him to change his ways, you may not care. It’s true that time changes people, and not always for the better, but if a script like this is going to stick so much to formula, it needs to provide some reason for why a sweet innocent kid became such a bully. It would be funny if Burt was more of a buffoon, but the story requires him to actually be a good magician, so there’s not much for Carell to latch onto. Eventually his sweetness and wry humour are let off the chain, but it’s barely enough to win back the crowd.
The rest of the cast do okay with what they’ve got, and it’s nice to see Carrey displaying a glimmer of the manic energy he built his career on. But all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t distract from Burt Wonderstone‘s faults.
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