I’m going to make you a promise: this review will be magic-trick-pun free and now, having read that, you can read the rest in peace.
Brass tacks: despite its flaws, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is funny, and if you’re a comedy fan you should see it. It’s performers are in top form, Jim Carrey plays my favorite comedy villain since Adam Scott’s Derek in Step Brothers, and for a movie which aims for the masses it crams in a surprising amount of smart material. The premise is good, there are some seriously clever sight gags, it’s tightly paced, never wears out its welcome, and there are these bursts of choreography during physical bits that are seriously impressive. I went in to this film a little suspect, despite my attempts to remain unprejudiced. I left pleasantly surprised.
Wonderstone is the story of an aging Las Vegas stage magician (Steve Carell) and his trusty sidekick Anton (Steve Buscemi), whose friendship is tested when a Chris Angel-like stunt magician, Steve Grey (Carrey), starts poaching their audience. Wonderstone has been doing the same show for 15 years, and now he’s got to find a way to deflate his ego, receive folksy wisdom from his lifelong hero, elderly magician Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin), find his inner child, and have sex with Olivia Wilde.
Keeping my praise in mind, its defects need to be noted. First, this movie is formulaic to the point that I’m tempted to classify it as a spoof. I would put spoiler alert somewhere in this piece except that you already know everything that’s going to happen in this movie, even if you haven’t seen the trailer. You know these things because you’ve already seen this movie. Childhood friends unite over common anxiety, they grow up, grow apart, grow back together, stunt cameo, boy meets girl who’s too young and attractive for him, boy bangs girl who’s too young and attractive for him, boy vanquishes antagonist, and the Campbellian hero’s journey is achieved, or whatever. The timing of the beats are so comprehensively by-the-book one wonders if there actually is a book secreted away in a vault deep inside Mann’s Chinese Theater. So it’s structure is utterly conventional, but hey, that sells.
It’s also disappointing that Burt Wonderstone is just a wee bit sexist in the way that most broad comedies are these days. Gillian Jacobs (who plays a floozy Wonderstone invites to his penthouse for “a lot of sex acts”) impressively commits to a role they could’ve given to a banana in a cocktail dress, but then, Gillian Jacobs is one of the funniest women working (can we make her way more famous already?). Olivia Wilde, our implausible love interest, has some pretty nice comedy chops herself, and occasionally she’s even allowed to spread her willowy wings and fly. When she does, she nails it, but director Dan Scardino (2 Broke Girls, 30 Rock) is content to have her play the shabby shrew of naysaying, Judd Apatow-style. The wasted opportunity is sad. Some of the sources of humor are pretty worn, too. Old people are addled, helpless, and without any semblance of dignity? Now I’ve seen everything!
I still recommend this movie. Draped over the creaking architecture and underexploited talent are genuinely smart jokes. Jim Carrey’s Steve Grey looks like Jesus if Jesus was the drummer in a Korn cover band. He speaks in messianic, gloriously nonsensical aphorisms like “I think people’s nightmares and turn them into dream realities!” Steve Grey’s “magic tricks” are actually just bizarre rituals of self-harm, and form some of the best bits of the movie. You might call him a Maso-Christ (hey, I said no magic trick puns). Carell finds a great balance between broad and subtle. Buscemi’s style of comedy isn’t naturally suited to this kind of movie, but he still shines because he’s just that good, dammit. The big jokes are predictable but performed with aplomb. It’s the movie’s throwaway moments, though, the quiet jokes that belie its secret smarts, like when Alan Arkin’s Rance Halloway declares that you might know him from such tricks as “Ghost on Skateboard,” or how the logo for Steve Grey’s cable special “Steve Grey: Brain Rapist” is the skull of a bunny over a top hat.
Wonderstone isn’t a comedy for the ages, but for a comedy fan like myself, it’ll do in a pinch. Maybe not so much ambrosia as it is ambrosia salad. Hey, marshmallows and pineapples are delicious, snob. Just eat some and enjoy the sunshine.