SXSW Review: 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'

What’s the next logical progression from Criss Angel and his “Mindfreak” shenanigans? Clearly it's “Steve Gray: Brain Rapist". As embodied by Jim Carrey, Gray represents the threat of newer, edgier street magic that threatens to put old-school Vegas showmen like Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) out of business.

Directed by “30 Rock” vet Don Scardino and written by a quartet of credited writers, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a sporadically hilarious lark that nonetheless adheres to the lunkhead blueprint that has defined the careers of Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell over the past decade. Hell, one could trace “Wonderstone” right over the plotting of 2001’s “Zoolander” in particular: the aloof lead (Carell), the equally aloof sidekick (Buscemi), the flamboyant rival (Carrey), the blonde love interest/straight (wo)man (Olivia Wilde). In one of the film’s funnier sequences, Steve and Burt even engage in a competitive magic-off that isn’t far off from that film’s walk-off bit.

Carell’s pompous personality is only good for so many chuckles, but Scardino has better luck finding laughs in the margins of the everyday world of magicians (jerk illusionists tease bartenders with lavish tips before levitating out the door; well-meaning ones bring magic kits to starving Cambodian villages) and from casual parental abandonment in the film’s prologue (“Happy Birthday, Me” pricelessly scrawled on a cake made from scratch by Mom’s kindly instructions). When hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) remarks on Steve Gray’s success, a defensive Burt scoffs, “So he mutters and cuts himself. My niece does that!”

A lot of these one-off gags and throwaway lines muffle the creaks of a well-worn plot in which Burt loses his cherished spotlight, shuns his best friend, abuses his most beleaguered admirer and then wises up with the help of childhood icon Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), now banished to a retirement home. Even as something of an expert phony, Arkin deflates the big-hair, bigger-ego caricatures from a distance and makes the film’s stabs at sincerity somewhat bearable. Whenever “Bruce Almighty” cohorts Carell and Carrey do reunite, there are some goofy laughs to be had, but Buscemi and Wilde are in turn mostly left to exchange exasperated looks on the sidelines (a shame, given Wilde’s impressively comical performance in last year’s “Butter” and her amusing anxiety early on here).

Like the back half of its namesake, “Wonderstone” isn’t terribly hip, edgy or new itself, just amusing enough to pass the time. While Scardino and friends do manage to end the film on an admirably nutty note, this gathering of comedic minds ultimately fails to produce any true movie magic.

Grade: C+