Steve Martin once said, “If you want to get into show business and you don’t have any talent, you become a magician.” That dynamic makes for a potential comedy gold mine, as Will Arnett proved so marvelously in Arrested Development. Any profession which ultimately depends on knowing where the trap door in the stage is will have its share of paranoid nuts, while the basics of slight-of-hand scream for pratfalls of the most ridiculous kind. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone tries to make it work for the big screen: providing a gaggle of insecure would-be prestidigitators ripe for a satirical plucking. Unfortunately, it also proves too good-natured to deliver the drubbing it promises. Its sweetness does it credit, but ultimately blunts its badly needed bite.
Certainly, it has no shortage of targets. Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is the kind of pompous man-child that Will Ferrell specializes in: a preening, self-important ruler of his own tiny realm, unaware of the real world slowly nibbling at its edges. He and his longtime partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) spent ten years working as headliners in Vegas, with Burt’s ever-expending ego fraying their friendship to the breaking point. The final straw arrives with Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), an S/M street magician whose web-friendly grotesqueries constitute a growing threat to their cheesy, velvet-laden stage show. They try to match him, it fails disastrously, and suddenly Burt has to face a life where nobody cares who the hell he is.
The predictable arc – arrogant asshat gets his comeuppance and learns to be a better man in the process – marks only one of Burt Wonderstone’s problems. Since we can see where it’s going so readily, it falls to the individual gags to surprise us. Every now and again they do – and they’re agreeable enough even when they don’t – but they tend to produce quiet chuckles more than out-loud belly laughs. The film constantly idles in second gear, seemingly just on the verge of kicking into overdrive and never pushing much past that.
Blame mostly lies in its gentle tone, which admittedly offers some compensation for the laughs it can’t achieve. This film feels aching sympathy for its characters, starting with early scenes depicting Burt and Anton’s bully-laden childhood, in which they become fast friends while bonding over a store-bought box of tricks. It continues throughout Burt’s various trials and travails, which reawaken his sweetness amid years of entrenched misogyny and entitlement. It’s a tricky balance, but the film as a whole depends upon it. We need to like him even as he eats plate after plate of steaming crow, and Carell ensures that we always do. Carrey helps too in a strange way, as his sneering Criss Angel clone delivers a surprising amount of darkness to challenge Burt’s wavering light.
On the other hand, the film also treats Gray with the same kid gloves as the rest of its subjects. It can’t bring itself to really paste anyone for their foolishness: to slam them against the wall the way they clearly deserve. Pulled punches abound, making the characters more endearing at the expense of real laughter. You can cut without cruelty, something director Don Scarino clearly aspires to, but which withers under the film’s undue timidity.
The supporting performances actually do the best. Olivia Wilde steals the show as Jane, Burt’s routine love interest who somehow transcends her straight-gal duties with a beautiful sense of timing. Alan Arkin chimes in as Burt’s childhood hero, now consigned to a rest home and devoid of the passion that launched his career. Both of them find the right combination of comedic inspiration and sympathy that the remainder of the cast searches for in vain. Carell feels like too much of a stand-in for Ferrell, though he does well enough in the purely technical department. Buscemi works his put-upon nice guy quite well, but doesn’t get the same opportunities as the rest of the cast, while Carrey – primed for a return to mid-90s form – needs more punchiness from the script to soar the way he once did.
His comparative blandness is indicative of the film’s total failure: poised to pounce on its chosen target but ultimately lacking the will to do so. The “Kick Me” sign is right there, complete with insecurities, overblown egos and the kind of “look at me” desperation that can make for potent comedy. Burt Wonderstone can’t do what it needs to without losing the kind heart it holds at its core. The two are not mutually exclusive, a fact that this film overlooks to its ultimate detriment.