Thursday, March 14, 2013

Magical? Not really. Funny? Often

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone conjures up laughs.
Silly, sloppy and totally lacking in trenchancy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has something richer comedies often lack -- a decent supply of laughs.

Steve Carell joins forces with Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini for a comedy about a couple of fading magicians (Carell and Buscemi) who have overstayed their welcome as Las Vegas headliners.
In their prime, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) were good enough to have a hotel theater named for them, but they've stagnated: Their act hasn't changed in years.

The movie opens with a nice little prologue in which two geeky elementary school kids form an alliance built around magic. It all starts when young Burt is given a magic set for his birthday. Rance Holloway's Magic Kit transforms his life, stimulating him to learn a variety of rudimentary tricks. He thinks magic will enhance his popularity.

Burt and Anton grow up to conquer Las Vegas, where they work for a hotel owned by Gandolfini's Doug Munny, whose name signals his undisguised capacity for greed.

Director Don Scardino (of 30 Rock fame) may not be the greatest of stylists, but what he lacks in visual chops, he makes up for by giving the movie an affable and sometimes dippy spirit.

The story's principal development involves the introduction of another magician, Carrey's Steve Gray. Gray, who becomes an instant rival for Burt and Anton, doesn't exactly do magic tricks. Rather than creating illusions, he puts himself through a series of physical tortures -- like spending a night screaming on a hot bed of coals. He's his own reality show.

The complex illusions cooked up by Burt and Anton seem passe when compared to Gray's death-defying stunts, which -- the movie suggests -- are precisely what a thrill-hungry public craves.

A bewigged Carrey -- he looks a little like Fabio on a bad day -- brings his customary intensity to the role of a crazed performer; it's a one-note performance, but the note is so strikingly manic, it almost sustains itself for the entire movie.

The script may be trying to for a bit of satirical edge with Carrey's character, but members of the pretension police can relax: No one's likely to accuse The Incredible Burt Wonderstone of trying to make any kind of statement.

Carell begins the movie as a self-absorbed, womanizing egoist with long hair, the biggest bed in Vegas, a tan that looks as if it came out of a bottle and an act so transparently showy, it borders on self-parody. Carell smartly tones down his performance as the movie progresses, bringing a little normalcy (and a better haircut) to his portrayal. He also picks up a love interest (Olivia Wilde) along the way.

Buscemi mostly plays second fiddle to Carell as the beleaguered Anton. Not surprisingly, the partnership between Burt and Anton becomes increasingly shaky, slipping into its final collapse with a disastrous trick called "The Hot Box." Eager to compete with Gray, the two suspend themselves in a class cage and wait for the Vegas sun to fry their brains.

Once he's on his own, Burt's career founders. He's eventually reduced to working assisted living facilities. At one such facility, he meets the aging Rance, who long ago abandoned his career as a magician. Burt and Rance develop a friendship that helps revive both their spirits.

It hardly needs to be said that Arkin fulfills his comic obligations with sarcasm, rue and what -- in this movie -- passes for wisdom.

The movie doesn't do much with other supporting characters. Jay Mohr (as the wonderfully named Rick the Implausible) adds little, to cite one example.

Of course, the movie builds toward the inevitable reunion and resurgence of the Wonderstone/Marvelton act, arriving at its destination in awkward but funny fashion.

It's possible that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will become little more than a footnote in the careers of a lot of talented folks, but it's an amusing footnote -- and that counts for something.

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