Asked how he is, Vegas magician Burt Wonderstone answers “I am incredible” with smug glee; he considers this an utterly honest answer. The dorky abandon of this kind of low-level magic is what makes The Incredible Burt Wonderstone work. Not all the time, mind you, but enough to make me think this may be the kind of semi-bad, semi-inspired comedy that could not only stand repeated viewings but perhaps improve with them.
The film, directed by TV veteran Don Scardino (30 Rock, Law & Order) wavers between two goals, the first of which is the fairly tedious redemptive journey of Burt (Steve Carell), from a place of pompous piggery created by a decade of successfully headlining at Bally’s into a decent guy who believes in the transformative power of illusion in its purest form. We only know there’s decency under Burt’s spray tan, glittery costumes and rampant chauvinism because of the movie’s prologue in which he is bullied by the middle schoolers (in a nice bit of irony, the head bully is played by none other than Zachary Gordon, the Greg Heffley of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise) and neglected by his single mother. To be fair, on Burt’s birthday in 1982, she does give him the instructions for making his own cake (from a box) and an official Rance Holloway magic kit, complete with video featuring Rance (Alan Arkin), who is Burt’s idol.
The kit leads to Burt’s friendship with another put-upon child, Anton, who grows up to be Burt’s partner (played by Steve Buscemi) in the aforementioned Bally’s act, which combines the magic of a Siegfried and Roy with the sexualized showmanship of say, Tom Cruise’s Magnolia character Frank T.J. Mackey. After year’s of packing the house at Doug Munny’s (James Gandolfini) hotel, Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton are facing dwindling audiences. Meanwhile, tensions between the old friends are rising, as exemplified by their dispute over possession of the adjective “incredible.” “It applies to both of us!” Anton says. “What a hateful thing to say!” Burt responds. Carell is fiercely committed to being loathsome as Burt, but also uncomfortable obliged, by story convention and presumably, box office needs, to be the character we care about; it’s no wonder he’s all over the place with Burt. The prospect that Burt Wonderstone would have a wholesome, intelligent romantic interest is absurd, but Olivia Wilde plays the part so gamely that the creepiness of it starts to fade. These are the parts of the movie that require the brain to turn off.
The much more interesting aspect of Burt Wonderstone has to do with a satirical examination of magic as a business in the 21st century, There’s a face-off between the old-guard magicians, inspired by the likes of Rance Holloway, and the new gonzo magicians, represented with terrifying genius by Jim Carrey (and modeled presumably on David Blaine). He plays Steve Gray, the “Brain Rapist,” a tall, dark-roots atop-blonde-tresses, ripped beast who specializes in gross-out gimmicks like holding in his urine for 12 days and drilling holes in his own head (separate events, just in case you were worried). Steve has a popular cable show and does not wear anything glittery. He favors more of an acid-washed, militaristic look. In fact, if a human being could be acid-washed,
he’d look like Steve Gray. Also, it isn’t a good show until someone in the audience throws up. Burt, who should talk, calls Steve Gray’s act “monkey porn.” Steve’s retort is the silken insult. “Your skin makes me cry,” he says, stroking Burt’s face.
I’d successfully kept Jim Carrey a secret from my young male child to this point—the less he knew about Dumb and Dumber the better, especially with that sequel promised for next year—but a babysitting crunch led to his introduction. The movie is PG-13, but suffice it to say, this was not my best parenting decision. Carrey’s Brain Rapist, oh Lord, try explaining the name, is a marvelous piece of biting comedy, so on point that at times the line between parody and plausible seems about as thick as a piece of thread. This is Carrey in full force, as potent and nasty a creation as John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana, but since he’s on the screen a lot more than that character from The Big Lebowski, he changes the tenor of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone from soft and silly to something more complicated and certainly more adult.
The stylistic differences between Carell and Carrey as comedians, one so determined to be liked, the other seemingly beyond that neediness, create a kind of narrative confusion that isn’t settled by the screenplay. It’s written by John Francis Daly (who will always be Sam Weir from Freaks and Geeks to me) and Jonathan M. Goldstein, who also get a story credit along with a committee of two others and seems to have been a fluid enough document to allow both Carrey and Carell some creative license—there’s a funny reunion scene between Buscemi and Carell that feels very improvised. That’s understandable, given the talents at hand. But it’s just fluid enough to also seem, on occasion, to be uncontained. The triumphs are undeniable (Carrey, obviously, but also Alan Arkin, who infuses his predictable role with a sort of weary, alluring elegance) but when Burt gets a load of Steve Gray for the first time and says “who is this hot mess?” it’s easy to transfer the question to the movie itself. Maybe that’s why I want another look at seeing The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; like every hot mess, it invites the gaze.