Review: ‘Burt Wonderstone’ could have been ‘Incredible’

Steve Carell as a Vegas magician? Steve Buscemi as his partner? Jim Carrey as the disturbing street magician seeking to dethrone them?

You had me at “Carell and Buscemi.”

And in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the duo delivers plenty of laughs, but the film doesn’t work enough magic to make anything more than a pretty funny movie appear.

Carell (“The Office”) plays the title character, one half of a Siegfried-and-Roy-like headlining Las Vegas act with his childhood friend and partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi, “Boardwalk Empire”). The duo’s popularity starts to wane with the rise of Steve Gray (Carrey, “Yes Man”), a David Blaine-like street magician whose illusions focus more on shock value than entertainment.

The movie’s funny all right, but it doesn’t live up to the potential of the cast and concept. Although Carell and Buscemi have a few over-the-top scenes together and Carrey brings back the howling absurdity we haven’t seen much since his earlier films like “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber,” most of the time it feels like they’re just going through the motions.

The same can be said of the story. Burt’s selfish behavior toward Anton and reluctant assistant/aspiring magician Jane (Olivia Wilde, “House”) softens, but really only because it has to in order to keep the plot going. You don’t see any gradual change or impetus for it; one minute Burt’s a jerk, the next he’s not. The characters’ actions seem to be motivated by the outline of the story, rather than the story flowing from the actions and emotions of the characters.

The filmmakers don’t seem to be able to make up their minds on the tone of the movie either. There are several jokes that stand out as much darker than other aspects of the film, like the vulgar name of Gray’s TV show. And the level of ridiculousness varies greatly, sometimes to effective levels of excess (the behind-the-scenes look at the climactic illusion of the film; I’ll say no more) but in other cases just weird, and not in a particularly funny way (Burt’s attempts to do the two-man show himself after a falling out with Anton).

Honestly, the movie is not as bad as I’m probably making it sound. There are some good, quality laughs here and while some of the humor may not be to my taste, nothing’s way over the line. But I can’t help thinking this movie could have been on the level of “Talladega Nights” in terms of outlandish humor while still having a heart. The cast is certainly capable.

Unfortunately, a lot of the attraction to “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” feels more like smoke and mirrors.