"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a movie that’s easy to like. Its cast is charming, committed and they get into enough interesting antics that it will hold your attention. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to hate. With frequent comedic dry spells in a somewhat dull script with satire that is anything but timely, the film just lacks that special something. It will certainly muster some laughs out of even the most hardened viewer, mostly due to its willingness to embrace the goofier side of magic, but for every joke it nails, another lands with a thud. It’s easily the most uneven movie of the year so far and is bound to sharply divide critics who have to decide whether or not to give it a recommendation.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) was a lonely kid. He didn’t really have any friends, was picked on mercilessly by his peers and his mother was never there for him, to the point where on his birthday, she went to work and didn’t leave him a cake, but rather the ingredients to make one. On that fateful birthday, however, he’s given one gift: a magic set endorsed by famed magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). This changes his life forever and, along with newly formed pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), he makes it big and becomes a famous Vegas magician. Unfortunately, a new trend is popping up called street magic. The most famous purveyor of street magic is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and he’s stealing Burt and Anton’s patrons. This leads to the closing of their show, a falling out of their friendship and a feud between Burt and Steve. Having never planned for the future, Burt never put away any money and is now broke, so what’s he to do?
The answer to that question is fairly clear, following a narrative trajectory that’s been around since we first started telling stories through moving pictures. If broken down to the most simplistic analysis, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" a story of the rise and fall and rise again of a popular character with contrived plot turns and obvious, trite romances. But to focus on narrative inconsistencies would be silly with a cast like this. What matters is how often it brings the laughs and when it does, it’s really funny.
In a great example of inspired casting, Jim Carrey steals the show as Steve Gray, the street magician shooting his television show “Brain Rapist,” a clear parody of Criss Angel’s “Mindfreak.” His rubber face and over-the-top antics are a perfect fit for the over-the-top nature of street magic. He, and the writers who wrote the character this way, understand that street magic is all about showmanship and macho posturing and with this knowledge, Carrey creates a character that is as absurd as he is amusing. He amplifies the inherent ridiculousness of street magic tenfold, capturing the essence, albeit exaggerated, of street magicians like Criss Angel. Jim Carrey, in a welcome return to form, saves this movie.
Yet one can’t help but realize that the parody is coming a bit late. With "Mindfreak" having been off the air for three years (and having lost its relevancy far before that) and Criss Angel a speck in our memories, what was the film trying to accomplish? The best satire relates to the present, making a point about something that is happening now and needs to be addressed, from big government decisions to silly pop culture fads. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" feels like it was written during a week long DVD binge watching session of “Mindfreak” and quickly loses its relevance in a world that has moved on.
Some of its satirical bite, however, is not out of date, like when Anton heads overseas to impoverished countries devoid of food and water to teach kids magic. When asked by a reporter if he’s also bringing food and water, he replies with a smile, “No, just magic.” It’s a great jab at those who travel around the world preaching their own beliefs, be they religious or simply ideological, without providing the actual elements that are truly needed in those areas, but it’s not fleshed out. It’s little more than a side note in a movie that repeatedly shows it has no idea when it has something good going on.
Its best thematic endeavor comes with the idea that magic is, well, magical. It believes strongly that magic can instill a sense of wonder in everyone, from the smallest of tykes to the oldest of adults and it’s right. Magicians, for the brief time an audience is watching them, can make the impossible possible and the film taps into this idea and uses it to bring its characters full circle. Granted, there are better options out there if that theme is all you’re looking for, like the wonderful 2010 documentary, "Make Believe," but the fact that it’s there at all shows that the filmmakers at least had their own childlike wonder, if not passion, for the art of magic. It’s just a shame it’s stuck in such a middling movie.
I suppose at the end of the day, I have to join all the other critics and make a decision on where my opinion falls with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and I sadly fall on the side of a non-recommendation. It’s a decision I make with a heavy heart because there is a lot to enjoy here, but it’s impossible to overlook such glaring flaws. It definitely has an audience, though, so if you think you’re in it, go for it. At the very least, you won’t hate it.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone receives 2.5/5