A lot of love went into The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I was steeped in the late 90s and early 00s magic culture, soaking far too long in the realm of websites that gated off access by quizzes on who invented the Tenkai palm, people who argued on the best patter, and why the Masked Magician was ultimately a harmless loon. Knowing all that, it’s very apparent that people that genuinely love and care about magic (or at least used to) made The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Both broad and specific references litter the movie that will ring a bell in at least 90% of the world’s population. The question, then, is if all that heart makes anything resembling a good movie.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is about a magic duo featuring Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). They have performed the same show for the last two decades as the headlining act at a hotel in Las Vegas and their relationship, once rife with joy and creativity when forged in their childhood years, has become stale and hostile. The last straw in the camel’s milkshake is a new hotshot named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) who specializes in brutal, graphic street magic.
The parallels are fairly obvious. Gray is so on the nose as a terrifying cocktail of David Blaine’s nutty stunt work and Criss Angel’s intense style that it almost hurts (his television special is called “Brain Rapist”), but Carrey manages to pull it off rather well. As an over-the-top caricature of two well-known former celebrities, it fits that the actor portraying him is also over-the-top. He gets the horribly inane shtick of Angel down by being self-serious in a way that looks (relatively) authentic but feels like a farce. A delightfully psychotic farce that totally feeds into all the crazy theories that a nascent internet purported as real magic.
Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton have a similar amalgamatory sensation, though nothing in particular sticks out. They are a general reference to the entirely of 90s magic where there were entire two-hour long specials on David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear and The World’s Greatest Magic. The shiny sequin suits, lion’s mane hair, and time-wasting, mumbo jumbo-filled, yet wholly interesting patter all fall in line with the days of old when stage magic reigned supreme. The commentary on magic legends being relegated to Las Vegas Strip shows is painful and all too truthful.
The problem is that Carell doesn’t do arrogance all that well. The first third to the first half of the movie is spent establishing Burt as a crass, womanizing, egotistical dick who has given up on magic, friendship, and mostly everything that doesn’t involve intimate female company. And if you’ve ever seen any other Steve Carell movie, you know that doesn’t work. He excels at playing characters hiding a heart bigger than they show, but the beginning of the movie presents nothing more than someone trying desperately to be nothing more than horrible.
Carrey and Buscemi definitely carry the bulk of the movie. Anton is fascinating simply because it’s always neat to see an animal in its natural habitat not knowing it’s being hunted, being told, and then reacting accordingly. Steve works simply because it is Jim Carrey behind the wheel and he is used sparingly enough to where you don’t go “ugh, come on, enough with the faces.” A children’s party in the latter third of the movie is simply sublime.
Alan Arkin, though rarely used as founding father magician Rance Holloway, is exceptional while billing Olivia Wilde as a headliner in this movie is a bit misleading. She is great when she’s in the movie, but Wilde is so ephemeral that it seems wasteful. And beyond that, she has such interesting folds to her character that are ultimately glossed over and brought up only to suit the whims of the plot. Her past, her talents, and her current struggles could have been so much more interesting if they’d only be incorporated better and more often.
And that kind of goes for the whole movie. While the actual discrete jokes of the movie are pretty fantastic, the narrative thread gets buried from time to time. We start out seeing Burt as a loner who is ostensibly forced to regularly eat bark and get punched in the stomach while celebrating his birthday all by himself. We love him and pull for him and when he makes a friend in the equally lonesome Anton, it feels good because good things happening to good people is just, well, good. So when we smash cut to asshole Burt, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
While the thread gets lost in the film, though, we the audience never lose our grasp on what will eventually happen. As obvious as it was to most magicians in the mid-00s that their time in the spotlight had come and gone, it is as obvious where the story goes (split friendship, downfall, rebuild, and triumph), so the fact that we know what the film itself doesn’t known makes some of the 100-ish minutes a bit of a chore.
It often feels a lot like someone taking a plate of mashed potatoes and trying to mold it into Michelangelo’s David despite it constantly falling over and becoming a limp pile of pale starch. While not a terrible movie, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is definitely a bit of a disappointment. At certain points, it feels like an amazing movie, but too much of it simply fails to deliver on the ripe, untapped world of millennial magic.
+ The countless homages to 90s and 00s magic feels right at home
+ Jim Carrey and Steve Buscemi are fantastic as caricatures of well-known magician archetypes
- Burt Wonderstone’s character arc is ham-fisted
- Olivia Wilde and Alan Arkin are mostly wasted with minimal story involvement and aimless character turns
- The plot meanders, forcing the audience to get ahead of the movie
Final Score: 6/10