More humorous than any of the actual events in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is the appearance of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey together onscreen in outlandish costumes. The gimmick is simply to have these larger-than-life comedians play themselves, goofily competing against one another for visual laughs. None of them offer up anything audiences haven’t seen before, but these collaborations are generally just for the fans. The novelty wears off in time, but fortunately the film moves swiftly.
Ever since they were little boys, bullied Burt Weinselstein and testosterone-taking Anthony Mertz have been fascinated with magic. So it’s no surprise that when they grow up, they become the Bally’s Casino headliners The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), playing to massive crowds for a decade. As Burt becomes a pompous, egotistical chauvinist (he continues to call last-minute replacement assistant Jane, played by Olivia Wilde, by the former girl’s name), Anton grows tired of working with such an insensitive snob. Their friendship deteriorates along with their viewership - while cutting edge street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, portraying a Criss Angel-inspired artist engaging in a recorded production called “Brain Rapist”) swoops in to steal patronage. In short time, the once wonderful Wonderstone is reduced to performing at Big Lots! and the Peaceful Oasis Assisted Living Community.
Although Carrey’s performance as a boundary-pushing, grotesque, extreme magician is amusing even when his acts include such non-magical antics as holding his urine for world-record time, refusing to blink even when splashed in the face with pepper spray, sleeping overnight on a bed of hot coals, or pulling playing cards out of swollen wounds, his purpose is mysterious. The character exists as a device to usher in the new, scarier, more morbid “magic” that the old-timers are frequently disgusted by, and as a conflict for Wonderstone’s comeback. His severe capers are meant to border fantastical magic and startling realism, yet are revealed toward the conclusion to be merely maniacal stunts that push the limits of the human body. In the end, his tricks are deranged mutilations that directly conflict with illusion – and it makes absolutely no sense that he’s scripted to take on impossible feats. In the middle of the film, Wonderstone and Marvelton attempt to emulate Gray’s daring style by entering “The Hot Box,” a plexiglass cage hoisted high into the sky by a crane, where they’ll wait for one week. They fully expect the enclosure to heat up to nearly 200 degrees and are deprived of food and water. It’s never explained how they’ll possibly survive (although Anton immediately engages in breathing techniques) – and due to Gray’s hoaxes, it’s alluded to that this exploit is not a fake.
The plot is formulaic and silly, but at least the ending discloses a revealingly believable and hilariously refreshing interpretation of real magic – in which an illusion so over-the-top is performed, the only conceivable way to pull it off is to drug the entire audience. The rest of the film is the overly typical rise to stardom, loss of celebrity, and the regaining of enthusiasm, decency, and distinction that regularly accompanies stories about fading entertainers. On a side note, Alan Arkin’s role as Rance Holloway, a famous magician and exemplar for Burt and Anton, visually recreates a character Arkin played back in 2000 for an exceptionally obscure film called “Magicians,” in which he assumed a nearly identical illusionist, right down to the slicked black hair and pencil-thin mustache.
- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)