Burt Dickenson: The Most Powerful Magician on Planet Earth went through a lot of changes before arriving on the big screen as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. A number of high-profile writers – including Up in the Air director Jason Reitman – helped shape the core Burt Wonderstone plot: a two-pronged story about friendship and the true power of magic, set against the growing threat of modern “stunt” magicians.
On paper, pitting a pair of Siegfried & Roy-like performers against an up-and-coming David Blaine-like street illusionist presents a smart and humorous juxtaposition. However, does the final film – aided by fan-favorite comedy actors Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey in headlining roles – successfully deliver movie “magic” that will be enjoyable for illusion enthusiasts as well as viewers who expect enchanting characters, not just comedic slight of hand?
While there are a some genuinely funny moments in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, along with a worthwhile message about magic and friendship, the film follows a very familiar and downright predictable plot progression that audiences will have already seen played to death in similar offerings. In fact, given that “thinking outside the box” is a central point of the movie, the rote movements of the story and a flat performance from Carell serve as a mind-boggeling failure in practicing what you preach. The Las Vegas magician set-up helps to differentiate the film enough for certain scenes and gags to appear fresh (and offer solid laughs) – but overall, it’s clear that multiple writers (and a director change) have muddied the central ideas in Burt Wonderstone.
Abused by bullies at their school and inspired by world-renowned illusionist Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), boyhood friends Burt and Anton pass their days mastering illusions in the hopes of one day headlining a Las Vegas show at Bally’s. Sticking together, Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) are discovered and their act, The Incredible Burt and Anton, becomes a staple for tourists visiting Sin City.
10 years later, the magician duo are going through motions, facing pressure from up-and-coming stunt magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and worn down by the repetition of their Las Vegas lifestyle, resulting in a high-profile fallout that leaves them estranged and unemployed. Disgusted by the state of the magic industry – which now caters to shallow street illusions – Burt goes back to basics in order to rekindle his love of magic and save his career.
In the film, lack of inventiveness leads to the collapse of the famed magician’s Las Vegas show – and as a movie experience The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t fare any better, since the milquetoast story and characters stifle an otherwise interesting setup. The film actually starts out on a solid step – with Burt as a wide-eyed kid discovering magic for the first time. Yet, as soon as Carell takes over the character, nearly all of the energy is sucked out of the production, as the comedy actor positions Burt as a vain and disillusioned shell. Even as the character grows (along very standard story arcs), he’s too stiff and restrained to be striking. Burt might become a better person, but that doesn’t make him a more interesting or well-realized character.
A solid roster of supporting players are responsible for the film’s better moments. Buscemi is charming and likable as Anton – especially when juxtaposed against the thin and cartoony portrayal of Burt. Anton, as a person, isn’t really explored and primarily serves as a “face” for Burt’s changing attitude toward friendship, but Buscemi brings appeal that elevates the character – delivering laughs and a much-needed dose of heart.
Jane, portrayed by Olivia Wilde, fulfills a similar purpose, and while the actress succeeds in her efforts, the story outright fails her character, shoving Jane down the most banal path imaginable. As a result, Jim Carrey’s Criss Angel/David Blaine hybrid Steve Gray is the only character with tangible draw. Gray is flat and off-putting but effective as an antagonist – managing to humanize Carell’s vanilla protagonist. It’s a return to comedy form for Carrey as an excessive source for gross-out humor, and in this case it works.
There is fun to be had in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone but the movie still fails to pay-off its central themes and is surprisingly devoid of intriguing magic tricks. Carell and Carrey poke fun at stunt magicians and casino illusionists, but even by the end, the movie doesn’t say anything interesting about either category. Characters are haphazardly thrown together in uninspired setups and while the film spouts one truism after another on the subject of magic, friendship, and even love, none of the ideas are ever exemplified through the actual actions of the characters on screen.
In fact, any imagination presented in the film’s final trick is directly undercut by an over-the-top pre-credits sequence that is only good for cheap laughs at the expense of the characters and narrative (not to mention stretching viewer suspension of disbelief). While Burt Wonderstone and Rance Holloway ruminate about the power of illusion – making people believe in the unbelievable – the onscreen drama does nothing to inspire the same trust or wonderment in the film’s audience.
Instead, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a generic comedy effort with a few charming scenes – but is very short on memorable enchantment. Moment to moment, viewers will find reason to laugh, but a muddled story and bland (albeit mostly likable) characters are not enough to make up for underwhelming returns in the central magician backdrop. While Burt Wonderstone derides street illusionists, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is all style and no substance – a stunt with no magic.
If you’re still on the fence about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, check out the trailer below:
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone runs 100 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. Now playing in theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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