(by Dustin Putman
Like a master illusionist's sleight of hand, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" keeps on surprising for the duration of its fleet 101-minute running time—not in regards to its plot trajectory, which is fairly easy to guess, but through its lightning-quick wit and savvy. This is an immensely funny comedy, and also a sweet one, with television vet director Don Scardino clearly learning a thing or two about socko comic timing from working on "30 Rock" for the past seven years. The screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (2011's "Horrible Bosses") is no slouch, either, in many ways sharply but affectionately satirizing Las Vegas magicians in a similar fashion as Christopher Guest has done for dog show owners (2000's "Best in Show"), folk singers (2003's "A Mighty Wind"), and the whole of Hollywood (2006's "For Your Consideration"). Article continues below
As kids, Burt (Mason Cook) and Anton (Luke Vanek) were lonely outsiders who befriended each other through their interest in magic. Thirty years later, they are wildly successful Las Vegas entertainers with a nearly 15-year-old act at Bally's that continues to pull in audiences. In that time, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) has let fame go to his head and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) has continued to just hold on, not wanting to lose his best friend or their show. With the rising popularity of extreme street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), the so-called "Brain Rapist" with his own television series, Burt and Anton suddenly see a rapid decline in their sales. Before long they are yesterday's news, a fact that causes a falling-out between the two guys. As Anton heads to Cambodia on a misguided mission to bring magic to the poor and hungry, Burt gradually experiences a much-needed wake-up call, reclaiming his drive for the arts in the process. With the guidance of elderly mentor Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) and the help of former assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), a reunited Burt and Anton set out to reclaim their place in Vegas by pulling off the most unthinkably elaborate magic act anyone has ever attempted.
It is rarer than it may seem for a movie to come along that inspires not only a fairly consistent stream of chuckles, but also a few well-earned guffaws along the way. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is the latest film to achieve such a feat, its humor arising from all brands of comedy: the awkward, the absurdist, the physical, and plenty of one-liners that only increase in adeptness the longer one considers them. Director Don Scardino displays a biting knowledge of the Las Vegas milieu past and present, using it to inform his fictional story of competitive magicians and the rediscovery of one's passions. Unmistakably having fun with Criss Angel's public persona, Jim Carrey (2011's "Mr. Popper's Penguins") sidles up to a scene-stealing supporting role as an out-of-control fame hog who will do whatever necessary—hold in his urine for twelve days; sleep on hot coals; hose his unblinking eyes with pepper spray—to keep audiences from coming back; that he's barely a magician at all is beside the point to him.
By comparison, Burt Wonderstone has mastered any number of on-stage illusions, but he's lost his childlike wonder for his abilities and has gotten lost in his own inflated ego. Best pal Anton Marvelton sees this in him, but also knows that without the two of them sticking together they have no show. When a split does finally occur and Burt foolishly tries to perform all the parts of their show by himself, it's cause for one of the film's most uproarious sequences. Steve Carell (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World") is easily one of today's most gifted comedic actors (no hyperbole intended), able to pull off roles both wacky and out-there and others grounded in earnest reality. Burt definitely falls into the former category, but Carell nonetheless finds a certain pathos to go along with the cunning exaggerations of his character; he's not exactly likable at the onset, but he's a good guy underneath who comes around. A running gag where he mistakes Jane's name (he keeps calling her Nicole) isn't very original by itself, but the way the film keeps it up past the expected end-point, then uses it to reveal deeper truths about Burt, is beyond smart.
Olivia Wilde (2012's "People Like Us") keeps getting better with each film she appears; as Jane, she impressively holds her own with some comic heavyweights and fits right in as the movie's most level-headed character, a young woman with some tricks of her own up her sleeve. As Anton, Steve Buscemi (2010's "Grown Ups") looks to be having a grand time; it's a pleasure to see him enjoying himself so much. In a movie where just about every supporting turn is a colorful one, James Gandolfini (2012's "Killing Them Softly") is a hoot as Bally's billionaire owner, the appropriately-named Doug Munny, and Alan Arkin makes a more memorable impression here as curmudgeonly retired magician Rance Holloway than he did in his Oscar-nominated role in 2012's "Argo." In trying to convince Rance to return to magic, Burt reasons that he'll feel like he's eighty again. "But I'm 75," Rance replies.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" culminates in Burt, Anton and Jane's last-ditch effort to save—and maybe even build upon—their careers by wowing a benefit audience with an out-of-this-world trick never seen before. The lengths they go to make it happen are amusing by themselves, but the film saves the absolute best for last: a hilariously ridiculous peek behind the curtain at their step-by-step process in fooling an entire theater of people. Granted, it's only March, but it is sure to go down as one of the funniest cinematic moments of the whole year. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" sometimes feels like its structure has been taken from a Screenwriting 101 manual, but that's not a criticism so much as a comment on just how cleanly the film and its ensemble of characters have been written. Their ultimate paths are predictable enough, but that doesn't take away the picture's lofty entertainment value for a minute. This one is an unadulterated crowd-pleaser.