It wasn't that long ago that Jim Carrey was on top of the world, although it certainly feels like it's been ages. Back then a Carrey film was like a license to print money, and a ticket to stardom for anyone who co-starred with him. One of the beneficiaries of Carrey's success was Steve Carell, who had a scene-stealing performance in Bruce Almighty, which then led to Evan Almighty and then a blossoming career of his own. Now a decade later, the tables have turned and it's Carell hoping to give Carrey a boost. Only Carell isn't doing anybody any favors with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a stale and woefully unfunny comedy about magicians that pulls nary a good joke out of its hat.
The film actually starts off quite well, with the promise of drawing a clear line between the magic that wowed us as children, and the lame circus acts perpetrated by guys like Criss Angel and David Blaine. Beginning with a flashback of Burt Wonderstone as a child, where he's picked on bullies and has a single mom who doesn't have time to watch over him properly. Leaving him a magic set featuring his favorite magician, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin with a pencil-thin 'stache), Burt quickly falls in love with magic and being a showman. His only friend is the sickly Anton (Steve Buscemi), who becomes his assistant and fellow traveler in the world of alakazam.
Fast forward and we see Burt and Anton as adults, and the two are no longer in love with magic, nor can they stand the sight of one another. They've been headlining their own show at a big time Vegas casino for years, and it’s become old, robotic, and choreographed to a ridiculous degree. Dressed in flashy but overdone outfits with huge helmet hair, they look like Siegfried and Roy's more flamboyant cousins. But that's the point, really. They're meant to look out-of-date, and if you needed more proof than it'll be hammered home after Steve Miller's 'Abracadabra' plays them onto the stage. Carell and Buscemi get the general malaise of the bored entertainers well; it's just not worth laughing about.
It doesn't help that Burt is a total jerk, so unlikable that he's hard to ever root for. A womanizer who fires his hot assistants at a moment’s notice, abuses Anton, and steals the spotlight for himself. He's downright creepy and borderline predatory, awkwardly seducing his latest assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), who he keeps referring to as Nicole. When Burt lures an attractive woman into his home, the scene isn't just sleazy; it's rather disgusting to watch. Their ticket sales in the tank, Burt and Anton are repeatedly shown up by an aggressive street performer named Steve Gray (Carrey), who has found notoriety with increasingly absurd physical torture tests. One involves him slicing up his face to reveal a playing card, while another has him holding his urine for days. Hilarious! Other than one throwaway line ("He should be dead, he's got more urine than blood") by a random extra, all of these gags are more irritating than anything else.
Anton quits after a disastrous stunt called the "Hot Box" goes belly up, leaving Burt alone to wallow in misery for a while. This is the point where we're supposed to forgive him for being a slimeball, but by then he's just too far gone. Even when Burt begins doing magic shows at an old folks' home, finding his childlike wonder again with the help of an aged Rance Holloway, it's a transformation that isn't the least bit convincing. But it does open up the door for him to have an unlikely romance with Jane.
Carell is a naturally funny guy, and easily one of the most charming actors around, but this is a role that seems like it was written for Will Ferrell like five years ago. The childlike earnestness Ferrell brings that makes him a lovable lout is missing from Carell, who drifts from one undercooked scene to the next. While Arkin is typically strong, the role has so much more potential that goes unfulfilled. Carrey's not going to jumpstart his flagging career with a dopey role like this where all he's required to do is bang his head on nails and sleep on hot coals.
The film is just as outdated as poor Burt and Anton, hoping to gain laughs with a weak cameo by David Copperfield, someone who most people probably don't recognize anymore. And there aren't going to be many who get the Blaine/Angel parodies because...well, they aren't really all that popular anymore, either. Hasn't their moment in the sun come and gone? The film concludes with Burt and Anton pulling off one amazing trick.....that requires nothing in the way of magic, stealth, or cleverness. Wasn’t the entire film about disparaging those who do the same? Whatever. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone's greatest trick is how quickly any hope of it being enjoyable disappears.