Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Magicians are a funny lot. Awkward, often unpopular kids who found a creative channel to gain popularity and hopefully reduce the daily pummelings from the school bully. It’s tough to be a kid, and if you’re dorky young Burt (played as a child by Mason Cook) it’s a daily nightmare, sprinting home after school to unsuccessfully avoid your tormentor.

When his Mom leaves him a Rance Holloway magic set for his birthday, it’s a revelation, and the next day equally awkward young Anton (played as a child by Luke Vanek) is impressed and volunteers to join the act, the Amazing Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton is born.

But success can make you dull, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is an oft-hilarious comedy about friendship and about reinventing yourself to keep up with the times.

Burt (Steve Carell) has an ego the size of his Vegas penthouse, while Anton (the always-terrific Steve Buscemi) is fed up with being the sidekick and is well aware of how old and tired their act is. Twenty years as a Vegas headliner and they’re still using clich√© Steve Miller Band music to open their act. And no-one’s coming to the show.

Stage magic is ripe for comedy and with the addition of twisted street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a character clearly modeled on edgy, goth Criss Angel, the proverbial stage is set for old versus new, traditional card tricks versus folded up cards appearing within skin wounds. And the magic gets worse — and funnier — as the film proceeds.

The original act goes through assistants like a kid goes through bowls of ice cream. Fast, enthusiastically, and without much to show for it. When rigging girl Jane (Olivia Wilde) is yanked on stage as their new assistant, Burt wastes no time in propositioning her, to her disgust. And yet there’s some attraction and even as the show collapses and Burt ends up on the street, Jane remains interested.

As a final stunt to resurrect their failing box office for the Burt & Anton show, the two men, whose friendship has long since soured by this point, agree to be suspended in a plexiglass box hanging high above Las Vegas (a stunt that David Blaine actually did in London back in 1999), just to have it not work out exactly how they were expecting.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) panics during one last big stunt

Jane, meanwhile, has taken a job with hated rival Steve Gray and when Burt realizes, it drops him even lower. What else could go wrong? In an attempt to find a new gig he visits all the big casinos, without any luck, and even pitches David Copperfield the act “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. And David!”. No luck.

After an embarassing stint at Big!Lots, Burt ends up working at a retirement home where he meets the long-since retired Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin, crotchety and amusing as always). Rance is underwhelmed with Burt and his patter, however, and offers Burt his money back for the magic set that got him started all those years ago.

The stunts in the movie are amusing and occasionally impressive, though the big state productions are played more for laughs than wonderment, as is exactly appropriatriate for the film. Gray (Carrey) has the best tricks, though they’re really better categorized as self-mutilation, especially his very last “magic trick” with a drill. Yikes. Carrey has a way of overshadowing everyone else on screen, and with the exception of a few minutes near the end, director Don Scardino restrains him admirably. To me, Burt (Carell) is the center of the film, and it’s his journey from stale has-been to a reinvented performer that’s what makes this film tick.

I was very skeptical of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone going into the theater, and while I’m a fan of Steve Carell, I’m not much of a Jim Carrey fan. I was quite pleasantly surprised and found the movie quite hilarious with lots and lots of great lines, witty sight gags and occasionally thoughtful comentary on friendship, aging and the pell-mell pace of progress in our world. It’s not a deep film, but if you’re looking for a few hours of amusement, this is an excellent choice. You’ll laugh.

And stay for the credits. They show how their greatest trick is pulled off, and it’s quite hilarious, even if perhaps a bit violent.

One comment on “Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

  1. Good review Dave. There were moments in the movie where I laughed, mostly with Jim Carrey, but the plot is predictable and the jokes just fall flat.

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