[This is a re-post of my review from SXSW 2013. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens today in wide release.]
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may celebrate the childlike wonder and unadulterated joy of magic. It may profess the power of awe and possibility. But its true motives are simple and pure: make the audience laugh by almost any means necessary. Those means are usually along the lines of the silly, slightly demented, biting, and occasionally dark humor that may not share the story’s values, but they get consistent comedy out of a charming albeit slightly conventional premise. Working from Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley‘s sharp script with great performances from its cast, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a trick we know, but it’s one performed well.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are childhood friends who took their love of magic all the way to Las Vegas, and became huge stars with their own theater at Bally’s Casino. Behind the scenes, Burt and Anton have grown to despise each other, which mostly stems from Burt’s vanity. The self-centered magician can’t even be bothered to remember the name of his assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde). Burt’s world begins falling apart when his ticket sales plunge and audiences begin flocking to disturbing street magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Reduced to working retirement homes, Burt must eventually rediscover his love of magic.
The story is as familiar as a card trick: a selfish person learns the value of humility. Goldstein and Daley don’t mess with the formula, and instead they move to take full advantage of their novel setting and colorful characters. The structure keeps forcing them back to making sure they hit the emotional beats, and Carell can always be counted on to deliver the warmth we’ve come to expect from all of his characters. The film also gives him the space to embrace the broad comedy, which is what makes the film run. Carell doesn’t overplay Burt as much as he allows his fake tan and slightly-off delivery to charm the audience. It’s an inherently outlandish character, and there’s no need for two actors to devour the scenery.
Instead, he leaves the scenery-chewing to co-star Carrey, who is wisely utilized in a supporting turn. Playing a parody of David Blaine and Criss Angel—the “trickless magicians” Chris Rock lampooned in his stand-up special Never Scared—Carrey gleefully plays into the kind of over-the-top character that catapulted him to stardom back in the early 1990s. Gray is a calmer, more centered Fire Marshall Bill. Without strong comic co-stars like Carell, Buscemi, Wilde, as well as Alan Arkin as Rance Holloway—the man who inspired Burt to pursue magic—Carrey would walk away with the movie. Instead, director Don Scardino makes sure we never lose sight of Burt’s emotional arc even though it’s a familiar journey.
If it all comes back to getting the most laughs possible, then it’s not so bad that the story takes a back seat to the humor. Perhaps Goldstein and Daley are just on my comic wavelength, but I was laughing hard throughout the movie. It’s difficult to say the picture shares its sentiment of celebrating the joy of sweet, innocent magic when the script is contains jokes like calling Gray’s act “Brain Rapist” or showing Burt’s rote, joyless process of bedding women. We don’t go to magic shows expecting to feel emotionally connected to the performers. We go to be entertained, and by that measure, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a delightful bit of hocus pocus.