The idea of Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, and Alan Arkin teaming up for a movie about life as a magician in Vegas seems to scream "comedy gold", especially when you toss in Olivia Wilde and Steve Buscemi to boot. Watching The Incredible Burt Wonderstone unfold, though, you may quickly come to realize that simply hiring funny people isn't enough to get the job done; you also need a funny (and smart) script.
What starts out as a hilarious satire of everyone from Siegfried and Roy to David Blaine slowly starts inexplicably morphing into a sweet, almost mushy, tale of redemption. And just like that, the magic goes poof.
When little Burt gets a magic set as a kid, he quickly sees it as a way to escape his daily life of being bullied. He and his friend Anthony form an instant bond and eventually make it all the way to being a headlining act in Vegas (as "The Incredible Burt and Anton"). After more than ten years of performing the same sequin-drenched act night in and night out, though, Burt (Carell) becomes jaded and is revealed to be a consummate jerk, and his act with Anton (Buscemi) fizzles out.
At the same time a rogue street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey) is taking the town by storm. His grotesque tricks including pounding nails with his head and cutting himself open for the reveal of the famous "Is this your card?" trick. It's enough to condemn Burt and Anton into obscurity; Burt ends up performing at the local Big Lots, and Anton heads off on an ill-advised relief mission to Asia.
After hitting rock bottom, though, Burt begins to turn his life around, and the "jerk with a heart of gold" tale gets ramped up to a fever pitch.
To be fair, director Dan Scardino (TV's 30 Rock), does an admirable job with the hand he's dealt. The entertainment value of the magic is solid (David Copperfield was a consultant and has a cameo), and he's able to get hilariously self-deprecating performances all around. Carell more than makes up for the disaster that was his last starring role, in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and Carrey takes full advantage of the nutjob role he's been given. Arkin, as Burt's mentor, is also a hoot-and-a-half.
But, oh, the script by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who teamed up last for the hilarious Horrible Bosses). They just couldn't seem to figure out what kind of movie they were making (raunchy comedy? romance? goofy farce?), and then they end up letting too many wasted opportunities fly by. By the time we reach the big Burt and Anton comeback event, the train has gone so far off the rails that we're left only to think about what might have been.
If nothing else, it would have been particularly fun to see more of any of the movie's many cameos, including Jay Mohr as a fellow washed-up magician; seriously, who wouldn't love to hear the backstory of a guy called "Rick the Implausible"?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone does have its moments (it's gut-bustingly funny on more than a few occasions), but it ultimately ends up feeling like a missed (and wasted) opportunity-- the juggler who drops his pins just as he's getting ready for the big finish.
@popcollin is the resident movie critic at Essex Cinemas in Essex, VT, and Cumberland 12 in Plattsburgh, NY.