When we first meet Burt Wonderstone, he’s a young kid being tormented by bullies on his birthday. His mother is working a double shift, leaving him to bake his own cake, but his present, a beginner’s magic kit marketed by magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), makes up for it. Burt soon makes a friend, Anthony, who’s as lonely as he is, and the two begin to dream up a magic act.
Years later, they’ve grown up to be Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi as “Burt Wonderstone” and “Anton Marvelton.” The passage of time is adroitly handled as we see them at the height of their career as Vegas headliners, and then playing to dwindling audiences. Burt has become a bored and jaded burn-out, a callow, misogynistic womanizer who has his nightly conquests sign affidavits that they’re over 18 and consent to all the sex acts they’re about to perform.
That’s surprise number one. After its initial, sympathetic reaction to a victim of bullying, the audience is likely to want to wring Burt’s neck when they first encounter Carrell. Fortunately for the story, Burt and Anton split up and Burt, even more unbelievably lame as a solo act, loses his big money gig. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”) and Chad Kultgen & Tyler Mitchell get respectable mileage out of Burt’s travails adapting to poverty and the charity of his former stage assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde).
While this is going on, an edgy new act, street magician Steve Gray, is on the rise. Jim Carrey, almost unrecognizable in long hair and a goatee and uncharacteristically buff, plays Gray, whose stunts usually involve torturing if not mutilating himself, as a nightmarish caricature of Criss Angel. Gray is venal, self-centered, mean-spirited and likely to give small children nightmares. In other words, he’s an almost perfect movie villain.
And having brought in a heavyweight like Carrey to play the part, you inevitably think this is what the movie’s going to be about. In this corner, the burned out, old school stage magician. In the other corner, the flamboyant, unnerving new act.
But surprise number two is that “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” seems more interested in being a heartwarming story about a jaded professional entertainer regaining his love of performing than it is in the conflict between Burt and Steve Gray. Burt, forced to take a job as an entertainer in a nursing home, encounters the retired Rance Holloway and the real magic trick occurs. Burt starts getting likeable.
That’s the problem here more than anything else. They aren’t delivering the movie people expect. Movie grosses are as often hurt by bad ad campaigns as they are bad movies. What’s on the screen isn’t bad, but the trailers will inevitably lead people to expect a funnier laugh riot than “Burt Wonderstone” actually delivers.
Don Scardino, an experienced TV director, makes his feature debut here. As you’d expect, the movie is workmanlike, and reasonably handsome-looking. But he’s probably done more cutting edge work on his usual beats, “30 Rock” and “Royal Pains.” Maybe not surprisingly, this is a release that will lose little on home video.
Carrell shows some guts early on, playing his character with almost no redeeming virtues. Arkin turns in his patented curmudgeon performance and no one does it better. But Buscemi, a fine actor, could have used more to do. James Gandolfini, as a heartless casino owner, is completely wasted. In fact Arkin and Buscemi are both underused in favor of the fast-rising Olivia Wilde, who manages to do better than just be decorative in a role that offers little more than being an eventual love interest for Carrell, and it’s unfortunate because the movie could easily have lived without that. The spine of the story is the rediscovery of an old friendship and their mutual romance with magic.
The last scene in the movie is the funniest, by the way. Don’t leave early.