The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens with a scene that captures some of the bittersweet adolescent ennui of Freaks And Geeks, the cult classic that created a generation of young stars and creators—including John Francis Daley, the former child star who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. The film begins with a latchkey kid coming home on his birthday to find his mother has left him a cake mix, detailed instructions for baking his own cake, and his birthday present: a magic kit bearing the alluring, mysterious image of master magician Alan Arkin. The expression of radiant joy on the boy’s face speaks volumes about the power of escapism and reinvention to a lonely, sad child, though the vehicle for that reinvention couldn’t be more ridiculous, or more likely to get the child shoved into a locker. Arkin and this glowing take on the transformative power of magic both not-so-magically reappear later in the film, by which point, the opening scene’s genuine emotion has been replaced by practiced schmaltz: effective on many levels, but fundamentally pandering and manipulative.
Ripped haphazardly from yesterday’s headlines, and populated with variations on magic’s biggest names from the past few decades, Burt Wonderstone features Steve Carell as the grown-up version of the wide-eyed kid from the opening scenes. He’s a preening peacock of a magician who barely tolerates partner Steve Buscemi for the sake of their enormously lucrative Vegas act. But when the act breaks up and Carell loses everything, he’s forced to re-examine his life and his misplaced priorities as he struggles to win back his career in the face of fierce competition from self-styled “street magician” Jim Carrey, whose unfortunate facial hair and grating, Poochie-style “’tude” marks him as a Criss Angel stand-in.
A 2013 comedy that pits a heterosexual exile from a Siegfried & Roy-like team against an Angel figure isn’t going to win any points for capturing the zeitgeist, and Wonderstone has the disadvantage throughout of taking easy shots at a cheeseball form of show business. Was anyone really dying to see someone take Vegas-style magicians down a peg? Carell is amusingly fearless in his character’s noxious narcissism, but when it comes time for his humbling, the film’s humor turns soft and squishy. There are hints throughout of the darker, edgier comedy that might have been, if, say, Bobcat Goldthwait had made the film a Shakes The Clown for magicians, but the filmmakers instead choose the route that entails a painfully arbitrary love interest who disappears for large swaths of the story (Olivia Wilde, fine in an underwritten role), and plotting so lazy that the climax revolves around a big magic competition. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has its cornball charm, thanks largely to the confident work of old pros Carell, Arkin, and Buscemi, but it’s ultimately a big, gaudy, predictable show, strictly for the rubes and tourists.