It wouldn’t be fair to call The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a disastrous movie. It would be fair, however, to call it three or four disastrous movies crammed into one: It’s abysmally awful as a buddy flick, as a broad satire of Las Vegas, as a romance, and as a soulful character-based comedy. In a moviegoing year that is already piled deep with the remnants of terrible movies, this one skitters atop the garbage heap like a roach.
Steve Carell plays the title character, who in the opening scenes is a kid in the 1980s who turns to magic because he’s lonely. He’s the kind of boy bullies chase around the block, and after a rough day of being forced to eat tree bark, when he arrives home at an empty house we find out that it’s his birthday. But all he has to show for it is a note from his mom, a single present and instructions to enjoy making his birthday cake (if he wants to bake it himself). The present, though, is a box of magic tricks, together with a video by legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) that give him an opportunity to master something and a lifelong friendship with a classmate, the equally dorky Anton.
Cut to the present day, when Burt and Anton, under their goofy stage names, play packed houses every night in a Vegas hotel-casino despite putting on a groaner of an act complete with red velvet tuxedos, corny patter, and the theme song “Abracadabra.” The act seems to be a spoof of David Copperfield, Barry Manilow and Siegfried and Roy, staged with the maximum cheesiness of Gob’s magic act on Arrested Development. Carell and Steve Buscemi (as Anton) sport silly wigs and prance around being bitchy with stereotypically gay mannerisms. (Yet minutes later, Burt is revealed to be a ladykiller, the homoerotic scene between the two men forgotten.)
The arrival of an amazingly annoying Jim Carrey on the scene as Steve Gray, an underground hipster street musician modeled after Criss Angel and David Blaine, sets the woefully tame plot in motion: Will Burt and Anton adapt to contemporary tastes or will they fade into irrelevance?
The answer to this question is a resounding, “Who cares?” Anton is such an irrelevant dweeb, and Burt and Steve are such obnoxious egomaniacs, that there is no one to root for in the movie. Olivia Wilde, as the magicians’ assistant Jane (the film’s example of a big funny is for Burt to refer to her as “Nicole”), stands in for the audience, chafing at the lameness of Burt and Steve’s act and rolling her eyes at Burt’s lechery. Why doesn’t she leave if she can’t stand these guys? Maybe because the filmmakers don’t want the viewers to follow her example.
In one of many tiresome would-be comic set pieces, Burt chickens out of a stunt involving being locked in a plexiglass cube suspended above the broiling Las Vegas strip, blames Anton and fires him, yet is so dumb that he tries to continue a two-man magic act by himself. How did such a moron rise to the level of sold-out attraction in the first place? And why does his supposedly hard-headed boss (James Gandolfini) keep the act going even when their audience has disappeared? Bigger problem: What happened to the sweet, lonely Burt from the beginning of the movie? Seeing how a talented, likable old-school entertainer adapted to new realities might have been fun, but no amount of payback can be sufficient punishment for such a brainless, narcissistic oaf as Burt.
Yet the movie shifts gears yet again in the middle and asks us to take pity on this lout, when his employer fires him and he is cast out on the street with only $5 in his wallet. (Wouldn’t a multi-millionaire have lots of property he could liquidate, such as the massive gilded apartment we saw earlier in the movie?) Jane, despite having been mistreated by Burt, takes him under her wing and even, inexplicably, becomes his lover, in a scene that is about as icky to watch as Judd Hirsch making out with Kim Kardashian. With her help he tries to start over from the bottom by taking a job as an entertainer at an assisted-living center for retired showbiz types. Naturally, one of the residents is the Arkin character, Burt’s old idol Rance Holloway, now 75. Arkin is the sole bright spot in the movie, and only then because, as a veteran and an Oscar winner, he evidently ignored orders to be as ridiculous as possible. (The director is Don Scardino, a helmer of 30 Rock who has zero previous big-screen experience, and it shows.)
If Rance could genuinely help Burt get back to his true self, the movie might finally have some heart, but instead he merely fades into the background as Burt and Anton team up for their stupidest trick ever: The “disappearing audience,” which consists of drugging their spectators with a gas, tossing their limp bodies in some trucks, and carting them out to an improvised set in the desert. Hint to the filmmakers: You’re not going to get us to love Burt Wonderstone by having him commit a massive crime, but you should have no problem making whatever audience exists for this pathetic film disappear.