Ben Glass / Warner Bros.

Steve Carell, left, plays the title role, Steve Buscemi is his partner Anton and Olivia Wilde is Jane in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone."

Movie review: 'Wonderstone' doesn't do the trick

Published: Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14TICKET

The only incredible thing about "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is the way it makes Steve Carell so thoroughly and irreparably unlikable. In a film about magic tricks, this is the most difficult feat of all.

Even when Carell is playing characters who are nerdy ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") or needy ("Crazy, Stupid, Love") or clueless (TV's "The Office") or just plain odd ("Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"), there's usually a decency that shines through and makes him seem relatable, vulnerable, human.

None of those exists in Burt Wonderstone, a selfish, flashy Las Vegas magician who once ruled the Strip with his longtime friend and partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), but now finds his act has grown outdated and unpopular. Even within the confines of a comedy sketch, where he probably belongs, Burt would seem one-dimensional and underdeveloped. Stretched out to feature length, the shtick becomes nearly unbearable – until of course, the movie doles out its obligatory comeuppance, followed by redemption, and goes all soft and nice.

But by then it's too late.

"Burt Wonderstone" comes from director Don Scardino, a TV veteran who's a two-time Emmy- winner for his work on "30 Rock," and "Horrible Bosses" writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. It has some laughs, many of them courtesy of Jim Carrey as a gonzo, up-and-coming street performer with a taste for pain, clearly modeled after the Criss Angel style.

And there is some spark to scenes between Carell and his "Little Miss Sunshine" co-star Alan Arkin as the master magician who inspired Burt as a lonely child and lives anonymously at the nursing home where Burt is relegated to doing card tricks.

These small joys are few and far between in a comedy that relies on repetitive sight gags and increasingly desperate one-upmanship.

In theory, we're supposed to feel for Burt because we see him bullied in a flashback. The nerdy, neglected child of a hardworking single mom, Burt turned to magic for self-esteem and found friendship with the like-minded and equally geeky Anton. Their mentor was the old-school Rance Holloway (Arkin), whose moves they watched on VHS.

Thirty years later, Burt and Anton are longtime headliners at Bally's, going through the same bit night after night with little inspiration. For totally unexplained reasons, they hate each other – probably because Burt has become a dismissive, abusive jerk. This is not Carell's strong suit.

Also part of the act is their latest assistant, Jane, although Burt insists on calling her Nicole because her real name simply doesn't matter to him.

The role is a huge waste of Olivia Wilde, who's stuck playing the supportive "girl" and isn't given much chance to show how funny, sexy or smart she truly is.

Burt and Anton find not just their friendship but their careers in jeopardy as Carrey's daring Steve Gray steals fans and attention with more and more outlandish acts: ridiculous stuff like sleeping overnight on hot coals and holding his urine for several days. With his long hair, shirtless, sinewy frame and charismatic demeanor, Carrey functions like a manic, subversive Christ figure.

Meanwhile, James Gandolfini has an amusing line or two as Burt and Anton's preening casino boss.

But it's hard to care much because there's nothing for the audience to hold on to.


One 1/2 stars

Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini

Director: Don Scardino

101 minutes

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)

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