They’ve Got Magic to Do, Just for You!

14 Mar

incredible_burt_wonderstone_posterHarry Houdini.

David Copperfield.

Penn & Teller.

Ricky Jay.

Those are the names of some great magicians.

Burt Wonderstone thinks he’s on that list, and the huge crowds that come to see his show every night at Bally’s in Las Vegas may back that up, but times are changing, and this spray-tanned egomaniac is not the star he once was.

Of course, I’m not talking about a real person. I’m talking about the title character in the new film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, in which Steve Carell rebounds from the awful Seeking a Friend for the End of the World to show us how funny and endearing he can be when he’s in a comedy.

Here, wearing a poufy wig and velvet costumes, and sporting a perma-tan and waxed-smooth chest, he’s an inflated, exaggerated version of a classic Las Vegas entertainer. He and partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) have been performing at Bally’s for years, doing the same ole schtick about their magical friendship, and reaping the financial rewards.

But a new guard of illusionist in the form of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, channeling David Blaine and Criss Angel) is drawing more attention, and Wonderstone must reassert his position as the top entertainer on the Strip.

It’s a great premise, executed reasonably well by director Don Scardino (30 Rock) and writers John Francis Daley (Freaks & Geeks, Bones) and Jonathan M. Goldstein. (The two also wrote Horrible Bosses.) Both Carell and Carey are in top form, and they get strong supporting work from Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, and especially Alan Arkin, who plays Burt’s boyhood hero (say it with me: Argo-cadabra!).

Most notable about the film are the magic-performance scenes, which are over the top and goofy, kitchy fun (each Burt and Anton show begins with a cheesy dance scored to the Steve Miller Band classic “Abracadabra”). Copperfield, who makes a cameo, was a consultant on the film, and the flamboyance of the magic acts and on-stage banter pay affectionate tribute to him and his overly dramatic but legendary illusions.

wonderstone-carreyBut the film as a whole is never blow-your-mind funny. Some of the gags you can see coming a mile away, and the big finale is kind of, well, anti-climactic. That’s a shame, given that the whole premise of magic is to take you by surprise, and the film takes place in the capital of excess, Las Vegas.

Also, good though he is, I could have done without Buscemi’s character and had the film be more of a battle royale between the two illusionists. That might have led to a more ridiculous and hysterical movie, instead of one that’s as light as it is. At the very least, it would have given Carrey more to do than play such a second-fiddle role (don’t be fooled by his top-billed presence in the ads).

But Wonderstone is still enjoyable to watch, mostly thanks to Carell, who, even when he’s playing an arrogant, preening, selfish, divo, remains completely likeable. In the hands of a lesser actor, or someone like Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller, the character would have been an ass you can’t root for. But Carell aims to please, and he succeeds.

Sure, that neuters the comedy a bit, but it means you’ll walk out of the theater smiling.

I’m giving The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a B.

Who is your favorite magician of all time? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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