I really have no idea what possessed me to want to see this movie. From the previews, it looked just as stupid as most of the comedies that have been rolling out lately. That’s My Boy, Ted, The Dictator, This is 40, to name a few. It definitely wasn’t Steve Carell, since most of his resume is littered with middling comedies and has yet to pull off a truly great comedy. I know some of you might argue that The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a great comedy, but it wasn’t and here’s how I know. Recite one single line besides shouting “Kelly Clarkson” from that movie. You can’t, can you? Great comedies are eminently quotable. Think about Office Space, Super Troopers, Major League, Wayne’s World. Hell, who doesn’t know most, if not all, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even my wife, who hates that movie, can quote lines from it.
I’d like to think it was Jim Carrey that drew me to The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but I’m not so sure about that either. It’s true that I was morbidly curious about if Jim Carrey has anything left in the tank. Who wouldn’t wonder after the last fifteen years of middling movies and outright stinkers he’s completed; none of which is even in the same ballpark of funny as his last truly funny movie – Liar Liar. What I’ve come to realize is that a combination of boredom and the lack of comedies in my recent viewings led me to light a match under two hours of my life and get ready watch them burn. And, just maybe, that’s why I walked out of the theater having simply blown the match out.
The first thing you should know is that the previews and descriptions of this film’s plot are lying to you. They want you to think that it’s about a rivalry between Carell’s old school magician (Burt Wonderstone) and Carrey’s new school magician (Steve Gray) and some kind of battle between them that fills up the movie. The truth is that it’s about the downfall of the old school magician who refuses to change with the times and is eventually run out of town. The rivalry isn’t a rivalry at all (except when it is unnecessarily forced in the end), but the final catalyst that costs Wonderstone his act at Bally’s Casino.
Wonderstone and his best-friend-since-childhood, Anton (Steve Buscemi), have headlined a show at Bally’s for fifteen years. Not having updated the show the entire time, the show’s attendance is almost non-existent and their brand of magic is being threatened by Gray, a street magician in the same vain as Chris Angel and David Blaine whose magic is one part illusion and five parts Jackass-style stunts. Think stunts like sleeping on a bed of hot coals or seeing how long he can go without blinking. In a final attempt to save the show, Burt and Anton stoop to Gray’s level, attempting to spend a week in a transparent box hanging over the Las Vegas strip. The stunt goes horribly wrong and Anton quits the show. The rest of the movie is a lesson in how far vanity can help a person sink and the inevitable attempt at redemption of said character. And just in case you were getting ready to write me a nasty comment about spoilers, this is standard procedure for every movie like this and should not come as a surprise. Spoilers would be if I started giving away the jokes, the final scenes of the movie, or that Steve Gray ends up accidentally killing himself. Just kidding. Or am I?
As I hinted at earlier, this movie surprised me in that I didn’t want to try any of Gray’s stunts on myself during or after the film. I attribute this to several factors, the biggest of which is that Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen, nor either of the Farrelly brothers had anything to do with this film. The second is that Jim Carrey’s role was fairly limited, but he was allowed to tap back into a mix of Fire Marshall Bill, Lloyd Christmas, and Ace Ventura to create a character that was just the right mix of normal and insane. The third was the supporting role given to the outrageously gorgeous Olivia Wilde, playing the aspiring magician/assistant, Jane, who acts as conscience, guide, and wake-up call throughout Burt’s plummet and redemption. The next was the inclusion of Alan Arkin as the legendary and retired magician, Rance Holloway. I truly believe that this movie was better simply due to Arkin’s presence and the rest of the cast putting in extra effort so as not disappoint a true comedic legend. The final, and maybe the most important, was giving Buscemi an actual important role rather than his typical role as Adam Sandler’s play toy. For those of you who have forgotten Con Air, Reservoir Dogs, and Armageddon, when given a chance, Buscemi can be a comedic genius and deliver lines with the best of them.
What I most thankful for in this movie is that it never stoops to cheap gags (well, maybe a couple, but not too cheap as to be Will Ferrell-ish), the story stays on the path of Burt’s fall from grace rather than be distracted by the smaller sub-plots, and the director (Don Scardino) never lets Carell or Carrey’s characters become overt caricatures of what they were intended to caricaturize. While I wouldn’t say this film is Carell’s Holy Grail or his Dumb and Dumber, it beats watching the umpteenth film where he is the sad, downtrodden, loser continually sucker-punched by life.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back. I know – I’m as surprised as you. Maybe magic does exist.