By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Point of disclosure: For reasons both nostalgic and personal, I probably like director Don Scardino’s “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” more than most normal folks will. Having had a childhood friend who aspired to magical greatness made it much more appreciable. You see, I knew Lew Wymisner when he was just becoming the Great Loudini.
Heck… once, just as our friendship was germinating, I even helped. Interviewing me on the B-ball court for my one and only stint as a magician’s assistant, he asked if I had a sport coat. Responding in a style reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s retort in “Easy Rider” (1969) when Peter Fonda inquires if he has a helmet, I answered, “I’ve got a doozie!”
In hound’s-tooth jacket, I got a peek behind the curtain, handed the budding magician a rabbit or two, and earned $5.Thus, as this film details the nascent stage of what one day will become the record-breaking, headlining Vegas act of Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, a memory about the grand aspirations and fantasies of childhood was jogged.
Pity is, Steve Carrel’s Burt Wonderstone is now bored and jaded. For all his fame and fortune, the thrill is gone. He and Anton, portrayed by Steve Buscemi, simply phone it in every night, sniping at each other offstage in resentment of the rut they’ve dug. Worse yet, they no longer feel the bond of friendship that has been the hallmark of their act.
The audience, once always full and now not so much, can sense it. And, as if that didn’t augur bad enough for their showbiz future, a perfect storm has arrived on the Strip in the arrogantly intrusive persona of street magician Steve Gray, played with unsettling vitriol by Jim Carrey. The handwriting is on the wall. Of course Burt’s hubris blinds his view.
But the scene is perfectly clear to Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), the owner of the Bally Hotel who only has the bottom line at heart. Push comes to shove and Presto-change-o, the exposition about a magician who has lost the joy and spark that led him to his craft turns into a tale of realization, comeuppance and a struggle for redemption.
While hardly ever sidesplitting, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” does provide a smattering, if not a steady stream, of laughs to augment what essentially is the proverbial entertainment industry saga. You know, how the mighty fall, the umpteenth variation on “A Star is Born,” but with doves and the other accouterments of things prestidigitation.
Still, the screenplay by a gaggle of scribes supplies fairly apt material and conjures some decent bits of shtick. Plus, the zany, self-absorbed, single-mindedness Carrel classically imbues his characters with, combined with Buscemi’s oddball characterization and Mr. Carrey’s abashing loose cannon, renders the sum of the amusement greater than its parts.
Playing the sorcerer’s apprentice without benefit of a black and white hound’s-tooth sports jacket, but making up for it with grace of form, face and manner is Olivia Wilde. Catalyst and love interest, she is Jane, even if Burt persists in calling her Nicole, just as he did all her routinely fired predecessors. But that’s OK. Unspoiled, Jane has a dream.
Also full of motivation, but more resembling a nightmare, at least to Burt, is Jim Carrey’s haughty illusionist. Representing that wing of hocus-pocus oft considered déclassé by more traditional magicians, he shocks and awes his sidewalk patrons with repulsive acts of self-affliction. But then, don’t people slow down to ogle a car wreck?
Urging Burt to match the evil competition’s death-defying feats, Anton suggests they reference the notebook of conjurations they penned as kids, and maybe in the process restore the magic in their magic. Buscemi, like Messrs. Carrel and Carrey, possesses in his bag of tricks an intrinsic ploy: His face alone can cause us a chuckle, if not a cackle.
But the film’s best supporting stint, while hardly more than a cameo, is artfully sketched by Alan Arkin. Lo and behold, discovered living out his days in a retirement home after inexplicably walking away from the world of abracadabra, is the great Rance Holloway. Gee…Burt owned his magic kit as a kid. Why, it’s the very reason he became a magician.
While Mr. Arkin’s comic alchemy adds warmth and whimsy to the doings, the good-natured movie just doesn’t have that novel or gut-busting twist up its sleeve. Hence, folks without a special interest in the world of incantations and wizardry are advised to wait until “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” materializes through the magic of television.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Don Scardino and stars Steve Carrel, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde. Running time: 100 minutes
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