For a profession that certainly hasn’t historically been very well-represented on film, you don’t have to go very far back in cinema history to find a movie about magicians. In fact, 2006 saw the release of not one, but two magician films: Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, the former of which faded into obscurity when compared to what still may be Nolan’s best film. Sadly, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will likely suffer the same fate when Louis Leterrier’s own magician film Now You See Me comes out later this year; not because the latter will be Leterrier’s best work – though I suppose anything is possible – but because Wonderstone doesn’t do itself any favors, failing to deliver anything memorable aside from Jim Carrey’s performance.
Even taking comparisons with other films completely out of the equation (which, honestly, is how every film should be viewed), Wonderstone doesn’t have anything that jumps out and commands your attention. Boiled down, it’s a stock story of the rise and fall from fame, the effects of success and failure on friendship and relationships, the threat of becoming obsolete, rekindling a childlike passion for a job, and the hero’s quest for redemption. We’ve seen the skeleton of this particular story applied to countless other professions on film before, and slipping it into a tight-fitting spandex suit and adding a layer of spray tanning doesn’t justify re-telling it like this.
Carell plays the title character, a filthy rich Vegas stage magician bored with doing the same act for ten years straight. When Steve Gray (Carrey) comes along and shakes up the world of magic using his David Blaine-esque street tricks, Wonderstone and his partner Anton (Steve Buscemi) are forced to adapt or disappear, and thanks to Wonderstone being a self-centered asshat, he and his partner have a falling out. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know how the rest of this one plays out.
Carrey shines in his small role, and it’s a return to the type of physical comedy that we haven’t seen from him in a few years. That said, the movie can’t even match what these guys did on YouTube years ago with no budget in their own long-running series of Blaine parody videos. Carrey’s portrayal of this street magician is funny, but it’s not enough to “carry” (sorry) the whole film. Carell and Buscemi don’t have much to do in the comedy realm here, and their physical gags mostly land with a thud. Alan Arkin brings a welcome breath of fresh air about halfway through, but everything that’s come before has feels so stale that even the Academy Award-nominated veteran can’t rescue the movie at that point.
Olivia Wilde shows up as the female lead, and while the writers attempt to make her into a functioning character with career aspirations of her own, they miss huge opportunities to make her feel like a fully fleshed out woman who can actually help the narrative. Instead, she mostly sits on the sidelines and plays a standard love interest to Burt as he figures out his own character arc, which is both totally predictable and completely uninteresting. Still, Wilde – who hasn’t had many chances to do much on screen other than stand around and look pretty – plays the role well, and if the actress has no higher career aspirations, she can surely carve out a niche for the next few years playing parts just like this one. (Hopefully she takes a different path.)
For a studio comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is remarkably unfunny. I enjoyed Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s last movie, Horrible Bosses, and though this film’s cast is just as impressive on paper, the movie itself just doesn’t work. It’s not offensively bad in the way that Adam Sandler movies have been lately, which is to say it doesn’t feel as if the filmmakers are shoving your face into a fart, let you come up for air, and then expect you to laugh while they repeat the process for two hours. Wonderstone doesn’t have contempt for its audience, but it doesn’t have any respect for it, either; it just sits there, as bland and boring as they come. Say what you will about The Illusionist, but at least that movie felt like it had a heartbeat. Until next time…