I wasn’t sure what to think when The Incredible Burt Wonderstone landed in my lap for review. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I do love a good comedy. I watched it. I loved it. You should love it too. If that’s not enough of an endorsement, read the full review below.
Burt Wonderstone is essentially the story of a man who wants to be loved. We get a few short scenes of young Albert being picked on by a bully, and left alone on his birthday by his presumably single mother. Along with a note saying she’s working late and instructions on how to bake his own birthday cake, his mother leaves Albert a magic set with an instructional video that promises, “Everyone loves a magician.”
He starts practicing his tricks at school where he meets his future partner, Anthony. The two become friends, agree to be partners, and there’s a montage of them developing and practicing tricks, because of course there is. Within minutes we move from 1982 to 2013 where Albert and Anthony have grown up to be Burt and Anton, played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. When we meet them they’re are at the peak of their fame in Las Vegas, but miserable.
We first see Burt and Anton during a rote performance of their show “A Magical Friendship.” They’re going through the motions like an old married couple. When they walk off stage between tricks they start fighting, and it’s clear this is the norm. Their assistant, Nicole, is sick of all the bickering and quits mid-show. She gets hastily replaced by Olivia Wilde’s character Jane — who Burt keeps calling Nicole throughout the film. It’s one of the better running jokes in the movie, and it has a sweet — if not predictable — payoff.
Jim Carrey shows up as a Criss Angel parody named Steve Gray. It’s hard to be more over the top than the actual Criss Angel, but Carrey pulls it off with a series of increasingly ridiculous tricks. Gray eventually becomes the villain, but spends too long just being a weird guy holding his pee in. No, really, that’s an actual trick he performs in the movie; he holds his bladder for a really long time. One of the bigger problems with the movie is that Gray is just so unbelievable that he brings the emotional action of the movie to a screeching halt whenever he shows up. Individually, the scenes with Gray are funny, but strung together throughout the movie they come across as cartoonish and a little out of place.
As Gray gets more popular, people lose interest in Burt and Anton, and they’re forced to try something new. That’s when things really pick up in terms of story. Burt and Anton’s partnership fails spectacularly when they try compete with Gray’s antics. The two split up, which leads to one of the funniest moments of the film — Burt, drunk and depressed, tries to do the whole doubles act alone.
It doesn’t work, and Burt loses his deal with the hotel. He’s left broke and alone to rely on the only person he has left, Jane — whom he still hasn’t stopped calling Nicole. Wonderstone takes the only job he can get: Entertaining retired Vegas performers in a nursing home. That’s where he meets Rance Holloway, played by Alan Arkin. He’s the magician in the video from Wonderstone’s first magic set.
The rest of the movie is spent with Wonderstone trying to get his life back together. Holloway becomes his mentor, and Wonderstone has to beat Steve Gray in a magic competition to win a lucrative contract as the house magician for a new casino. Magic is performed. Relationships get repaired, and it’s all very funny and surprisingly touching.
Carell as Wonderstone is great. Any flaws this movie has are easily overshadowed by brilliant moments between Carell and the other characters. The rest of the cast is great too, but Carell really holds things together. All the jokes work, and even if some seem misplaced in this movie, there’s enough comedy to keep an audience invested.
There’s a lot that I love about Burt Wonderstone, but it’s not without its problems. None of the characters seem fully developed, and the only one that comes across as a real human is Olivia Wilde’s Jane. Jay Mohr plays a less talented comedy magician who keeps popping up for some reason. Mohr is funny and good in the role, but it doesn’t add anything to the story. I think the time would have been better spent fleshing out the main characters a bit more.
The core story of the film works well, even if the movie wanders off the path of it from time to time. Everything is played for a laugh, which comes at the expense of the emotional heart of the movie, but the laughs are good enough to justify it — most of the time. If the opposite were true, and the movie focused on the emotions at the expense of the comedy, Burt Wonderstone would probably feel a lot like Greg Pritikin’s Dummy. That’s not a bad thing. Dummy is fantastic.
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