In order for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” to have worked, first director Don Scardino needed to have decided what kind of movie he wanted to make. The film is primarily a broadly-structured comedy, but it also works in scenes of heavy-handed sentiment and sincerity, and a few select moments of disgusting gore effects are thrown in for good measure. Never once does Scardino find a successful way to balance these stylistic approaches; he traps himself in a vicious cycle of making incredibly awkward atmospheric transitions, going from one to the next before starting the process all over again. I think this will do more to confuse audiences than entertain them. Most of the scenes are obvious, but a handful truly had me wondering whether I was supposed to laugh or take them seriously.
Since the film is for the most part a comedy, I think it would have been best for Scardino to have jettisoned the clunky moments of sincerity altogether. With that I mind, I turn to the next thing he could have done to make the film work; he could have made absolutely sure that the screenplay was funny enough before the start of principal photography. Credited screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein fall into the same trap so many comedic writers fall into, namely taking a joke that’s only halfway amusing to begin with and allowing it to run on much longer than it needs to. They also get plenty of mileage out of jokes that aren’t funny even at the start. It’s not that they’re being offensive, although they do come dangerously close to it at certain points. It’s more that they allow the material to remain nothing more than unstructured ideas. There’s no process or payoff.
It tells the story of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), who has been one half of a successful Las Vegas magic act for the last ten years. The other half is his best friend since childhood, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Their once sell-out shows drastically decrease in popularity upon the arrival of an edgy new street magician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a cross between Criss Angel, David Blane, and a particularly disturbed masochist. His acts always involve shocking displays of bodily harm; we will see him slicing open his cheek to retrieve a folded playing card, lie on a bed of hot coals for an entire night, hold his urine for twelve straight days, burn a birthday message into his forearm with candle flames, and run a drill through his skull and into his brain. Burt and Anton will have a falling out as they attempt to attract attention back to their act. While Anton goes to the Far East to provide magic kits to impoverished kids – as opposed to, say, food and water – Burt is reduced to selling paper towels at a local Big Lots.
Burt’s comeback involves not only Anton, but also two side characters, both of whom are at times required to shift gears and play their roles straight. One is Burt’s childhood idol, retired magician Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin), who languishes in an assisted living home for retired Vegas performers. The other is Burt’s former female assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), who has dreams of one day becoming a magician herself. For whatever reason, the filmmakers think it’s funny by definition for Burt to repeatedly call her Nicole, even though he knows what her real name is. Her dialogue is such that she repeatedly says aloud what we in the audience are thinking and feeling. This approach would have been right, except that she inevitably falls in love with Burt and in the process sets aside any and all very justified concerns.
The last thing Scardino could have done to make the film work was rewrite and reshoot the ending, which involves Burt, Anton, and Jane staging an illusion that’s not only grossly implausible but also morally questionable. For the filmmakers to even consider the idea that anyone would find it funny is cause for concern. The final sequence is immediately followed by an epilogue that reveals the secret of achieving the illusion; on the basis of what we’re shown, neither Burt nor Anton nor Jane are any more decent or caring than Steve, although the film sets out to convince us otherwise. And why are the secrets being revealed, anyway? Half the fun of watching a magic show is not knowing the mechanics of the illusion. Save the twists and revelations for a mystery thriller.
In the spirit of fairness, I will confess that one scene in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” made me laugh out loud. I won’t divulge any specifics, except that it involves the last stop on the title character’s search for a new venue to perform his new solo act. Every other joke is an exercise in mediocrity and overkill. Take, for example, the character of Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), a billionaire casino owner who hired Burt and Anton ten years earlier; he perpetuates a running gag in which he’s never able to remember the age of his son, not even at his birthday party. The filmmakers were apparently under the impression this idea was automatically funny simply for being. That’s not how it works. It needs to be developed so that an audience can in some way find it relatable. No such effort is made in this movie.