You would think that a film about magicians would have some magic to it. And you would think that a movie boasting such artful laughmasters as Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin would have some real comedic heft.
In the case of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," you would be wrong on both counts. It is not a dreadful film. There are just enough laughs and clever moments to keep it north of the Adam Sandler line of comic ineptitude. But it is so wildly inconsistent that it always seems on the verge of completely falling apart and losing what little attachment it has to reality.
The premise isn't a bad one. Certainly, with proper execution, it could have worked as a comedy with some dark overtones.
Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have turned a youthful love of illusions and sleight of hand into a magic show that eventually earns them a headlining spot at Bally's Casino in Las Vegas. (The act, or what we see of it, seems like a second-rate Siegfried and Roy -- minus the big cats.) With all the glitz and glamour of the Strip, it's a couple of nerdy guys living the dream.
But over the years, Wonderstone becomes arrogant and narcissistic. Worse, the tricks, the onstage banter and, most critically, the duo's diminishing audience have all become old.
Then cable TV magician Steve Gray (Carrey) comes to Vegas, performing his extreme street stunts and grabbing that younger audience. (Gray
A trick created by Wonderstone and Marvelton to regain center stage from Gray goes disastrously wrong, thanks mostly to Burt's self-centeredness. In the wake of the fiasco, Anton quits, Bally's boss (James Gandolfini, surprisingly unfunny) gives the act the boot and Burt ends up going from the penthouse to living in a dumpy motel and performing at a seniors facility.
In the end, of course, there is redemption, a reunion, true love (with the luminous Olivia Wilde, who is better than her part) and a final showdown with Gray. Much of the comeback can be credited to legendary magician Rance Holloway (Arkin) who, in a rare bit of honest dialogue, lectures Burt, saying, "What people want is not a magic show. What they want is real magic."
Real magic is what we don't get from screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who hit the big-time with 2011's "Horrible Bosses." (Daley is the same John Francis Daley who stars on TV's "Bones" and is best known for playing Sam on "Freaks and Geeks.")
"Horrible Bosses" was a pretty funny, if over-the-top, piece of business, but on "Burt Wonderstone" the writers can't seem to find a way to mesh the film's constantly shifting tone or maintain a consistent connection to reality. That's true right to the film's ending when it loses what little grip it had on the real world of magic. They hit enough high notes to generate more than a few laughs, but those bits and pieces don't amount to a cohesive whole.
Director Don Scardino is a veteran TV sitcom director ("30 Rock"), and he keeps things moving. But he does little to help his cast get through the weak spots in the writing.
Carrey has the acting chops to go to the dark side (which is where Gray ought to be), but in the end, he comes off more Looney Tunes than dangerous lunatic. No one makes unpleasant more relatable than Carell, but there's nothing he can do with Burt to make the magician's sudden transformation from raging egotist to nice guy even remotely plausible. Only Arkin really makes something of his role, with his deadpan delivery making his moments on screen far funnier than they should be.
There's no question that you will laugh at times throughout "Burt Wonderstone." But if you are looking for something truly magical, you will come away disappointed.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
Rating: PG-13 (for language, sexual content and do-not-try-this-at-home-kids magical stunts)
Cast: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve
Director: Don Scardino
1 hour, 40 minutes