MOVIE REVIEW: Magic and morals

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First Posted: 3/18/2013

The title character in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a condescending narcissist who considers spending $75,000 a month in bed sheets advisable. He can’t become a mensch overnight – unless you want to damage the final product. Or you hire America’s funny nice guy, Steve Carell, for the role, which accomplishes the same thing.

Burt (Carell), a world-famous magician, has worked with his partner and childhood friend, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), for 30 years. But the joy is long gone. The highlight for Burt is scoring with the attractive female volunteer he chooses from the audience, and even the sex is accompanied with legal forms.

While the duo performs acts as old as their entry music – “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band – a hip new competitor emerges. Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is a longhaired street magician with a repertoire heavy on self-abuse: sleeping on hot coals, driving a nail in with his head. The public loves it; Burt doesn’t get it.

Anton creates a stunt that would make them more current, but Burt, still on autopilot, doesn’t prepare for the big event. 20 minutes later, the friends’ partnership is broken, along with Anton’s ankles. Burt soldiers on, thinking no one will notice if he performs a two-person show by himself.

Jobless and broke, Burt’s massive ego bursts in a world without multiple masseurs and room service. At one point, he hawks the magical absorption of paper towels. The movie’s first half bursts with brittle humor as Carell delivers each line like it’s a burden and preens with entitled stupidity. After his former assistant (Olivia Wilde) makes dinner at her apartment, Burt offers to clean up. He leaves the plates outside the door, barking for assistance in Spanish.

Everything works until writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley soften the character. Burt meets his childhood idol (Alan Arkin) and bonds with Wilde, who is establishing a thankless career as the girlfriend-in-waiting. The redemptive path fails because we love the old Burt. The new Burt is the Steve Carell brand of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and “Dan in Real Life,” pushing us toward morals and hugs.

Not every comedy needs to be cuddly. In fact, the good ones usually aren’t. The movie has the right ingredients but no idea of measurements. Steve Gray is a perfect example. Carrey tries, but he’s given a one-joke character that doesn’t interact with Burt as much as insult him from a television screen. The lack of competition between the veteran and the upstart is further diluted by Burt’s slide, his estrangement from Anton, and the power of a good woman. There’s too much of everything: Four wacky magicians, a casino owner who forgets his kid’s age three times, the sameness of Gray’s jackassery as legitimate magic. The movie is in competition with itself.

There are highlights aside from Carell’s early comedic obliviousness. I love Anton’s earnest staginess, which extends to the outside world. Wilde is always a delight to watch because she brings a warmth and playfulness to lousy characters. Arkin in ornery lunatic mode is always a treat. Ultimately, what foils “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is that it would rather be nice than funny.

Rating: W W W

-For more of Pete’s cinematic musings, please visit or follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.