Film review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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Steve Carell turns a few magic tricks as an aging Vegas performer in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Image: Warner Bros. Steve Carell turns a few magic tricks as an aging Vegas performer in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Image: Warner Bros.

Magically funny: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone exceeds low expectations

The advertisements for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone make it seem like it will be the least funny, most egregious, and patience-trying movie of Steve Carell’s career. A movie comedy about Las Vegas performers and street magicians? News flash: The David Blaine jokes stopped being funny the moment he first appeared on ABC News in the early aughts.

There’s another movie out there that, on paper, seems like a losing proposition: A bunch of guys play sexist newsmen at a San Diego affiliate in the late 1970s. The ads were unfunny, even if the players were people audiences knew and liked. It’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which has since entered the pop culture lexicon, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone takes some cues from it. Similarly, it seems like a terrible idea.

How refreshing it is to report that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is hilarious, and often can’t-stop-laughing hilarious. It’s no Anchorman—the characters aren’t as broadly over-the-top funny, and it has a weakness for sentimentality that Anchorman doesn’t—but it largely gets things right, even when he it takes wrong turns.

For example, Carell mostly abandons his you-must-love-me persona that he’s been using since he became a movie lead. That obnoxious sincere-guy thing he does in Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love. pops up here, but for most of the movie he plays Burt Wonderstone as a self-absorbed lout, akin to his characters in Bruce Almighty and “The Daily Show.”

Then there’s Jim Carrey, who plays a jerk street magician named Steve Gray with a combination of gusto and restraint. Carrey disappears into Gray as much as a giant movie star can (and quite well), and his portrayal of Gray trying to fall asleep on a bed of hot coals is uproarious.

That leaves the not-so-great moments in Burt Wonderstone. The story itself is for the birds (and, because this is a movie about magic, there are plenty of birds). Carell and Steve Buscemi are lifelong friends and magic partners who have been a big draw on the Las Vegas strip for a decade. Now their magic is stale, their audience is dwindling, and Gray threatens to, figuratively and literally, steal their show. The fun is watching these guys play off each other and nearly kill themselves (on screen) in the process.

Buscemi has a rougher go of things. He’s mostly on screen to be made fun of (and it’s pretty easy to make fun of Buscemi’s appearance, even when he’s not sporting a terrible wig), but he seems game, so give him a pass.

But Olivia Wilde gets a raw deal. Whereas Christina Applegate in Anchorman got plenty of jokes, Wilde is the straight man here. It’s a stretch to say a funny woman would threaten the men on screen—who knows what filmmakers were thinking?—but she’s not much more than window dressing. It’s a drag.

However, it’s hard to dislike a movie that acknowledges the magicians’ best trick is highly illegal. When it’s operating on all thrusters, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is nearly incredible.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone/PG-13, 101 min./Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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