The world of egomaniacal, spray-tanned Las Vegas magicians in which “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” takes place is perfect fodder for a comedy, and I have no doubt that Christopher Guest would have gotten a lot of milage out of this premise. But director Don Scardino and writers Jonathan Goldenstein, John Francis Daley, Chad Kultgen, and Tyler Mitchell—yes, it took four of them—squander the opportunity by abandoning their initial characterizations of the focal magicians as deluded phonies, self-destructing in an intolerably sentimental second-half.
The filmmakers’ ultimate failure would be more crushing if they didn’t warn the audience of the movie’s schmaltzy trajectory in its short prologue, which finds elementary-aged Burt (Mason Cook) bonding with fellow social outcast Anton (Luke Vanek) over a shared interest in magic. The score swells and the boys’ faces convey sickeningly sweet expressions of satisfaction as they advance from Burt’s store-bought magic kit, an instructional set featuring Vegas entertainer Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), to more elaborate tricks of their own creation. If not for the ‘Scope cinematography and Arkin’s presence, you’d think you were watching an afterschool special.
Then comes a bit of false hope, as the movie strides in the direction of the slightly nasty comedy it should have been. Fast-forward a few decades, and Burt (a wig-donning Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi, bleached blonde to look like an elderly Macaulay Culkin) are the veteran headliners of a famous show at the Strip’s Aztec Casino. Carell and Buscemi’s characterizations of these men are appropriately vain, gleefully playing into the stereotype that David Copperfield (who enjoys a good-humored cameo) and his many imitators are little more than glamorized circus performers. Some of the comic situations are funny, too; the writer who came up with the idea that image-obsessed Burt makes women sign a waiver before he sleeps with them is the most talented of the quartet.
Jim Carrey shows up for a few more laughs in the form of guerrilla magician Steve Gray, whose television show “Steve Gray: Brain Rapist,” on the network Intense TV, features him performing stunts like withstanding pepper-spray to the eyes, sleeping on hot coals, and holding his urine for 12 days straight. Clearly a parody of David Blaine and Criss Angel, Gray is less concerned with actual tricks than sheer masochism. The ensuing jokes about our extreme behavior-obsessed, cable TV-watching culture that rewards idiots like Gray are perhaps too easy, but Carrey’s commitment to this earring-clad wackjob is infectious, multiplying Burt and Anton’s self-absorption by a factor of 10.
But after reveling in the phoniness of these ridiculous magicians for a little over a half-hour, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” nosedives as soon as Burt and Anton’s show is disbanded, unable to compete with Steve Gray’s fresh brand of entertainment. Burt stoops to becoming an entertainer at a retirement home, where he finds his aforementioned childhood idol Rance Holloway residing. What turned the comic genius Alan Arkin on to this role, I have no clue. Unlike his contemporaries, Rance is a magician with integrity, and he teaches Burt the virtues of making people believe in magic, as opposed to just amusing them with cheap theatrics. Arkin gives Rance a few amusing personality quirks, but the role is nauseatingly serious at its core, designed to transform Burt into a sympathetic human being who we’re supposed to root for as he stages a final-act comeback. In other words, the film instantly abandons every sinister characterization that made Burt funny.
And thus, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” becomes a simple, conventional “crowd-pleaser” in which hero (Burt) is pitted against villain (Steve Gray). What a disappointing outcome for the three main performances—at first deviously juicy displays of Carell, Buscemi, and Carrey’s comic chops—and for Arkin, who’s clearly as game as his co-stars but is never given anything meaty to do. When did Hollywood begin rejecting the notion that bad people can make for good comedy? By forcing redemption upon its protagonist, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” loses its teeth.