Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) have been best friends ever since childhood when they first bonded over a magic trick. Thirty years later they’re veterans of the Las Vegas magic scene, and Burt in particular has grown bitter, weary, and disconnected from reality. When a new street magician (Jim Carrey) arrives on the scene their act seems dated by comparison, and when they try and up their game it only tears the pair apart and leaves their careers in tatters.
The script was written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who’ll always be Sam from Freaks and Geeks to us), and while The Incredible Burt Wonderstone proves to be much less mean-spirited than their previous effort, Horrible Bosses, it’s no less problematic. There’s a lack of focus, a lack of relevancy, and like so many Hollywood comedies of late, it’s crucially lacking in laughs.
Carell gives it his all in the lead role and does well to craft a likable character from one who starts off as a narcissistic ass, but he’s constantly being held back by a script that drags him all over the place. He and Buscemi share great chemistry early on, but before long Buscemi exits and Carell’s instead paired with Olivia Wilde’s aspiring magician Jane. Then he’s bonding with Alan Arkin’s veteran magician Rance Holloway. Then he’s sparring with Carrey. As soon as you begin to invest in a relationship it disappears. That’s one hell of a lousy trick, and when the departed character eventually magically reappears again it’s essentially back to square one.
That stop-start approach makes it hard for Carell to build up much of a patter in any of his pairings, and means that at best the principal cast all turn in likable if not particularly funny performances. That places even more emphasis on Goldstein and Daley delivering well written jokes, and while there are some there just aren’t enough. James Gandolfini for example raises the biggest laugh with a Mandy Patinkin gag, and you know you’re in trouble when Tony Soprano has the best line in your comedy. Community’s Gillian Jacobs, meanwhile, turns up for an okay cameo, but her presence also serves as an unwelcome reminder that in 2013 a lot of the better comedy can be found on the small screen.
The main joke holding together the film seems to be the pitting of an old school showman against a modern stunt magician in the vein of Criss Angel or David Blaine. Remember when Blaine was buried alive? That was 1999. Remember when he suspended himself in a Perspex box (a stunt the film directly references)? That was 2003. We’re a decade removed and by now the conceit isn’t just outdated, it’s utterly redundant. Stage magic in popular culture is usually the fodder of period pieces like The Prestige or more recently Oz the Great and Powerful…have magicians in this vein ever been further from the zeitgeist?
“Ahead of my time,” are the final words spoken by Carrey’s Steve Gray in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and they serve as a particularly ironic sign-off for a film that feels so dated.