“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”: Now you see the laughs, now you don’t

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“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance and Cinema Café.” 1:40, PG-13, 2.5 stars out of 4.

In magic, as in comedy, performers talk about the “build.” It’s not enough to just have a few cool illusions (or funny jokes). The show has to go somewhere, build in momentum and energy, and almost as important as what illusion you do is where it fits in with the other tricks.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” has a few good tricks up its sleeve. There are genuine laughs here and there, an overall spirit of sweetness and good humor, and this is the first movie in ages that knows what to do with Jim Carrey. But it doesn’t have a very strong build. The jokes just line up, one after the other, taking their turn and hitting or missing with the viewer.

The sweet tone is established in a prologue in which two lonely kids bond over a store-bought magic kit created by the legendary illusionist Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The kids become lifelong friends, and grow up to be Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), the hottest illusionists on the Vegas strip.

Over the years, Burt gets super-rich, and super-bored, going through the motions of doing the same tricks over and over. And because there’s nothing Vegas audiences reject more than insincerity, the Burt & Anton show becomes a flop.

Their friendship severs, Anton heads to Cambodia to do “magical relief work” (a pretty funny idea), and the humbled Burt finds himself doing half-assed magic at birthday parties and retirement homes. Meanwhile, Burt has to watch as gonzo-Goth “street magician” Steve Gray (Carrey) grabs headlines with his feats of grotesque magic, such as sleeping overnight on a bed of hot coals, or going without urinating for 12 days straight. I know Carrey is a love-him-or-hate-him proposition for most people, but you have to admire the way he just throws himself full-tilt into the arrogant Gray, who is like Creed’s Scott Stapp if he did card tricks, intoning things like “I tried to warn them” before he performs his “brain-raping” (his term) illusions.

But between this and “Dinner for Schmucks,” I’m not sure Carell’s is well-chosen for broad comic characters like Burt. He just never looks comfortable in his fake mullet and perma-tanned chest – it’s a role tailor-made for a more obviously extroverted star like Will Ferrell or Jack Black (or, frankly, Carrey). He seems more at ease with the chastened Burt after his fall, and the film gets funnier at the sight of this sad-sack magician lugging his cages of pigeons and rabbits from one fleabag motel to another, or showing up for a job interview at one hotel right as it’s being demolished.

Watching Burt rediscover his love of magic, with the help of his assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and his old hero Rance, is kind of touching, although screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have trouble tying the film’s redemptive arc to its comedy. And, aside from a couple of scenes, they really bobble the chance to create a duel between Burt and Steve Gray, like a comic version of “The Prestige.”

What’s surprising about the “Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is that, for a film about dexterity and sleight of hand, it’s just kind of clumsily executed, lurching from one comic set-piece to the other. Some of them are very funny on their own merits, but if this was a real Vegas magic show, much of the audience might have left midway through to see Celine Dion instead.

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One thought on ““The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”: Now you see the laughs, now you don’t

  1. Pingback: What’s playing in Madison theaters: March 15-21, 2013 | Madison Movie

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