The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a film about magic that contains precious little magic in itself. Few things are more disappointing than a film that blows a potentially rich premise through half-baked execution, but this is just another studio comedy that's happy to settle for obvious gags and a join-the-dots narrative, possibly hoping that our affection for the movie stars on display with allow us to overlook the laziness of the whole exercise. The ruse almost works – the stars certainly do work exceedingly hard to conjure some laughs – but the sense of disappointment that hit me as I watched the story go through the motions was an all-too-familiar feeling.
The frustration with this misfire goes deeper because you can see glimmers of the film it could have been everywhere, particularly during the opening 20 minutes, in which the characters are neatly set up. Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and his sidekick Anton Marvelmen (Steve Buscemi) have been together since the two bullied outcasts bonded as children over their shared passion for magic. For the past decade, they have been putting on a regular Vegas show that has made them rich and famous, but jaded too. The film's depiction of the two conjurers performing the same old tired routine is funny and sharp, with the pair unenthusiastically following the rote steps that they can recite in their sleep before sniping at each other between acts, while Burt's attention only seems engaged by the possibility of taking a female volunteer from the audience and into his enormous bed.
The ridiculous Wonderstone, so arrogant but so oblivious to the reality of what's happening around him, is the kind of egotist that Will Ferrell has portrayed in a number of films, and Carell is good at expressing the character's unshakeable self-confidence, which is ripe for puncturing. Wonderstone's fall from grace inspires some amusing scenes – the "Hot Box" stunt that severs his partnership with Anton is predictable but funny, and his attempt to perform that double-act alone is a standout comedy scene – but all of these gags are jettisoned when the film decides it's time for Burt to learn the error of his ways. After losing his lucrative Vegas gig and being forced to go out into the world to earn a living, Burt gradually undergoes a redemptive transformation through the most hackneyed of means.
First, he takes a job as an entertainer at an old folks' home, where he happens to meet his childhood hero Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the old-school magician whose magic set first set Burt on his path. He also has the support of a good woman, with Olivia Wilde's Jane – an aspiring magician herself – helping him get back on track (although given how inexplicably shoehorned-in the kissing scene between Burt and Jane is, I suspect her real function is to reassure viewers that Carell's pompadoured, makeup-wearing character isn't gay). Finally, there's the inevitable big showdown, in which Burt and Anton must compete for the much-coveted regular show being offered by hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini).
All of this plays out exactly as you'd expect and every plot or comic beat drops into place where required, without any risk of disrupting the sleepy forward momentum of the storytelling. The actors are all given no more than one or two notes to play (this is a colossal waste of Buscemi), and nobody seems particularly interested in kicking things up a gear or freshening up this lame material – well, almost nobody. The saving grace of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is Jim Carrey, who energises the picture every time he appears by fully embracing the weirdness of his character Steve Gray – a masochistic street magician who calls himself a "Brain Rapist" – and by bringing an edge of danger to his scenes. Carrey's best performances of the '90s had a manic, unhinged quality that gave the laughs he produced an unsettling undertone, and Steve Gray is an ideal role for him. When Burt and Anton start losing their audience to Gray's extreme stunts, we can hardly be surprised, as his persona is so much more charismatic, daring and fascinating than anything the leads can cook up.
If only The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have tapped into Carrey's performance and spread such inspiration across the rest of the picture. If only they had hired a director who could really make the gags pop, instead of Don Scardino, a director whose long career in TV is betrayed by his mundane shot selection and slack pacing. With this cast and premise, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have been a very funny comedy instead of a film that raises a few chuckles before dissipating from the audience's memory the second the end credits start to roll. It is a film that settles for mediocrity, and the idea of making an audience disappear – the trick Burt and Anton have always dreamed of pulling off – is one of the few aspects of the picture that really resonates.