Let's see if we can go through this entire review without making any puns or other kind of wordplay about magic as we discuss The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Seek elsewhere if you require jokes about the vanishing laughs and mystifying mediocrity of this film.
The two big Steves -- by which I mean Carell and Buscemi -- play childhood friends, nerds and magic-loving geeks whose response to bullying as children was to grow up to become the biggest magic act on the Las Vegas Strip.
But after headlining for 15 years with the same act -- as magical friends Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, in what looks like Siegfried & Roy's hand-me-downs -- they're ripe for toppling. That happens when a new magician in town, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), starts stealing their audience. He's in the David Blaine/Criss Angel mode, part street magician, part endurance-stunt performer, with his own cable show of his act, "Brain Rape."
Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), the owner of Bally's where Burt and Anton headline, pressures them to update their act to compete with Gray. But their attempt at an endurance stunt fails, and Burt is left to entertain at Wal-Mart and a retirement home for entertainers. There, he encounters his childhood idol, an elderly magician named Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Can Rance remind Burt of the real magic he felt as a young performer, mastering a trick and mystifying an audience for the first time?
Well, what do you think? The outcome is hardly surprising. The only real shock about this film is how timid the comedy is.
Carell finds all the humor in Burt's haughty, self-involved view of the world, and Carrey is right in his gonzo zone as the guy who attempts to spend his night sleeping on a bed of hot coals, but their best moments are few and far between. Buscemi brings a surprising sweetness to the hapless Anton, while Olivia Wilde, as their assistant with magical aspirations of her own, is simply a place-holder, a construct instead of a character. Arkin, however, makes every moment count, finding laughs that aren't written.
The script by a committee of writers feels like a dim copy of every "follow your dream" tale you've ever seen. As well as every film about someone who achieved that dream - and then lost it -- and then found it again.
There's nothing particularly smart or fun about this film. It can be silly but rarely in an inspired way. And with a cast this well-stocked with comedy talent, and direction by Don Scardino (an Emmy nominee for 30 Rock), you'd think just a few more laughs would not feel like such an impossible reach.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a movie for 8-year-olds who haven't seen a lot of movies and provide fresh eyes for its tired gags. Anyone older will see every punchline coming long before it arrives.
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