Lacking the courage of its conviction to trump nihilism with idealism and never achieving anything close to incredible, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone performs in fits and starts. That’s too bad, because its theme that magic should evoke the feeling that “anything in the universe is possible” – as against the notion that one can never be sure of anything – offers some classic magic tricks and tales of wonder.
The central conflict is between Carell’s pompous magician and Jim Carrey’s braided, self-mutilating Jesus Christ impersonator, a characterization that nearly perfectly expresses today’s culturally predominant death premise. Carell’s Burt Wonderstone, a nerdy, unloved kid at heart whom we see from the beginning’s flashback is moved to magic because he wants to be loved, has become a crude, boorish narcissist. He treats his lifelong show partner (Steve Buscemi) like dirt and their Las Vegas act is getting stale; they’re losing market share with well done but familiar tricks and becoming their own disappearing act. Meanwhile, Carrey’s repulsive street performer offers the promise of something different.
But it’s something sinister, too, with shock and disgust at its core – like today’s comedians – not the wonder and joy that’s achieved by the fluttering of a bird’s wings at the end of one of the tricks that Burt Wonderstone learned to practice from an old master (Alan Arkin, reuniting with his Little Miss Sunshine co-star Carell) when he was a boy. As Wonderstone descends, losing his gig and winding up in an old people’s home where he rediscovers Arkin’s geriatric magician, he slowly and unconvincingly begins to restore the magic. All this happens with multiple plot points and characters – an assistant, a casino owner, a trip to Cambodia – that don’t fit. Olivia Wilde portrays an aspiring magician and love interest but she never really gets fleshed out. Only Carrey’s grotesque, Christ-like torture porn star makes a consistent impression, leaving audiences repulsed and feeling as though the world is unknowable.
That should have made it easy for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, reenergized by an elderly audience, to reconnect with what he does best and create and perform illusions that make people feel alive and in good company, rewarded for having used their minds. But the movie never evokes a childlike sense of purpose or wonder, and the final big act makes the crucial error of revealing the magician’s secrets before the trick is performed, so the only genuine satisfaction comes from literally watching Jim Carrey’s thoroughly modern street preacher/performer come to his logical finale and wipe his mind out.
There is another problem, too. The humor is too dark and I mean dark. For example, the wonder of the picture’s best magical moment – when one magician makes something beautiful out of something ordinary – is stolen a moment later when the illusionist’s beautiful creature slams into something. How can a movie that makes a point of showing us that ours is a world of wonder – and it is, even now as the lights go out – hope to pull off that demanding trick if it’s snickering at its own magic? While I wanted to like it and I enjoy Steve Carell in almost anything, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has too many fingerprints and not enough heart and soul.