I’d like to take The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) to task, but I’m not sure I can. Make no mistake, this is a terribly unfunny movie that is routine, unimaginative and uninspired. As a movie about magicians who describe themselves as “amazing,” “unbelievable” and “incredible,” it can’t be anything but mediocre. Yet, it’s so earnest, as all magicians must be, that to eviscerate it seems cruel. Many a comedy is released for which the middle of the road is the goal, but The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has the decency to not be cynical about it.
This is the rise, fall and re-rise of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) nee Albert Wunderstein who was harassed as a child for his interest in magic and formed a relationship with a similarly oppressed classmate named Anthony Mertz. Mertz became Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and their friendship blossomed into the dynamic Vegas act “The Incredible Burt and Anton,” performing on the biggest stage on the strip and affording Wonderstone a bed so comically large that if the phone rings on one side and he’s on the other, he cannot get to it in time. However, success kills the pair’s wonder in magic and certainly their patience for each other, and after 10 years as the desert’s biggest act it’s gotten stale. They bitch at each other during every break, and a joyless Wonderstone finds less and less fulfillment in bringing ditzy groupies back to his place to show them his big bed among other things (the women are asked to pose for a photo in a green photo booth, pretending to “hold a pumpkin,” the confused girls furrow their brows but do it anyway, and the next morning they wake up in an empty, though giant, bed to find a glossy photograph of themselves Photoshopped in Wonderstone’s arms as if they had just stepped off Space Mountain). Their audience shrank as their show got more and more tired, and making matters worse is the arrival on the magic scene of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a hip, intense street performer who has a cable show called “Brain Rapist.” He trades in the feathered hair, sequined jackets and disappearing illusions of Burt and Anton for tattoos, leather wristlets and feats of endurance such as sleeping on hot coals and pledging not to pee for a week.
Disillusioned with each other and performing in front of audiences that are disillusioned with them, Wonderstone and Marvelton split up and find themselves performing in increasingly smaller venues. Marvelton goes AWOL attempting to bring magic to the Third World (“It turns out they were just interested in food and water.”), and Wonderstone is reduced to being the house magician in a retirement community. One of the old folks at the home is Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the magician who inspired Wonderstone when he was a child. He and Jane (Olivia Wilde), the kindhearted up-and-comer, reinspire Wonderstone to become the cheesy, impeccably coiffed illusionist he always aspired to be.
The fatal error the movie makes is in putting all its creative effort in its character’s names and not its script. Funny names are wonderful, but if they are ever funny they are rarely funny for long, and soon you are saddled with two main characters whose names are Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton (by the time the screenwriters got to Jane they must have been pooped). The fallacy is that if someone has a funny name it must mean that whatever he or she is doing must be funny. Not true. In Taos, New Mexico, for example, there is a man named Alden Cockburn, and he is, as you might have guessed, a urologist. That’s pretty funny. However, although I don’t know Dr. Cockburn, I would imagine if he were asked to do the pedestrian and moderately humorous things that Steve Carrell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin and Olivia Wilde have been in the movie, and keep in mind that these are all people who have proved themselves to be funny in the past, Dr. Cockburn would be just as pedestrian and moderately humorous as they are.
The problem with the movie is that it’s all forced energy, very little of the natural or genuine variety. Comedy requires easy charm to survive. It’s trying hard, but it never achieves zaniness, only a desperate struggle, like a Yugo with a smoking engine trying to urge itself to a garage. If you’ve ever seen this, you’ve probably never seen the driver laughing. Arkin gets to shine most as a cynical but honorable veteran, and Carrey has some fun with the mock-spiritual Gray, whose stunts get more and more ridiculous, but Carrell is asked to navigate an impossible road between lunacy and schmaltz with an unexpected and unnatural turn into romance. Wonderstone is dismissive and chauvinistic to Jane, rejecting her offer to be her new partner because “Women aren’t as magical as men,” (I’ve found it to be quite the opposite but whatever). Still, she helps mold him into a better man and easily falls for him under less than satisfying circumstances. (This is a variation of the tired and archaic, “Well, he’s the main character so he must get the girl in the end,” theory, but it does lead to the movie’s funniest moment when, while in bed, the two magicians resort to their bag of tricks, complete with Jane producing a condom from behind Wonderstone’s ear as if it were a quarter at a child’s birthday party.)
Though it has some charms and keeps our interest because it has its heart in the right place (too many comedies are about meanness; this one isn’t, which is refreshing), it exists as a formula to be forgotten the second you are out of the theater. Now you see it … poof!