What is it with Hollywood and hyperbole these days? Last week saw "Oz the Great and Powerful" and now we have "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." Calling it "The Mildly Diverting Burt Wonderstone" would have been more accurate, but how many tickets is that going to sell?
Neither as good as you might hope nor as dreadful as doubters may fear, "Wonderstone" has in Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin four of the funniest men working in movies today. But it doesn't seem to know how to consistently get the best out of them.
One reason is that "Burt Wonderstone" itself can't make up its mind what kind of movie it is. Part manic comedy, part would-be heart-warmer of the "follow your bliss" variety, its odd combination of tones and situations leads to as many awkward, uncertain moments as funny ones.
Still, the chance to watch Carell and Carrey (who costarred in "Bruce Almighty") throwing themselves into the kind of crazy characters they do best is not without interest, even if director Don Scardino (best known for TV's "30 Rock") isn't quite sure how to handle the mood transitions the story demands.
This tale of the ups and downs of a celebrated team of Las Vegas magicians (Siegfried and Roy come fleetingly to mind), "Burt Wonderstone" starts with its heroes as small boys, unhappily bullied just for being alive.
What saves the lads is exposure to "Rance Holloway's Magic Kit," a sleight-of-hand education in a box that is introduced by a video by Holloway himself (the always funny Arkin), who promises these lonely kids, "If you follow my instructions, everyone will love you."
Cut to years later and watch Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi), still best friends, as they climb the ladder to success as a magic team, finally getting signed by Bally's casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) to headline Las Vegas' The Burt and Anton Theater.
All this is merely prologue to "Burt Wonderstone's" actual story, which starts a decade after that and has poor Burt bored, bored, bored with his rich and famous lifestyle with his devoted partner Anton, even with the endless groupies who have to sign a multi-page release before he'll allow them to cavort on the biggest bed in Las Vegas.
Wonderstone is especially hard on the act's comely female assistants, and when one quits right in the middle of a show, stage manager Jane (an effective Olivia Wilde) gets thrust into the role and quickly has to tell the great man "I worshiped you for 10 years and you've made me hate you in 60 seconds."
"Burt Wonderstone" is initially hampered by the difficulties inherent in putting magic on screen in these CGI-heavy days. So while the screenplay (written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley) calls for lots of prestidigitation, it can be difficult for viewers to tell what is the real deal and what was done with those helpful computers.
With his hair long and leonine and his cut-to-the-sternum burgundy velvet costume appropriately sprinkled with sequins, Carell has great fun with the egomaniacal Wonderstone, and it seems at first that the film will focus on the comic rivalry brewing between himself and the equally driven gonzo street performer Steve Gray, who prefers the title "brain rapist" to "magician."
As played by Carrey with unstoppable messianic fervor, Gray is part masochist, part performance artist, part trickster. Given to enigmatic sayings like "bad things don't happen to us, they happen for us," Gray is getting a national reputation for his cable show on Intense TV that features stunts like not walking but sleeping on burning coals, and he and Wonderstone appear to be cruising for a bruising.
Before that can happen, however, "Burt Wonderstone" takes another tack entirely. The Burt and Anton partnership collapses and humiliation after humiliation is visited on Wonderstone. He ends up sinking as low as doing magic tricks for the old folks at the Peaceful Oasis retirement home.
It's here that "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" becomes another movie almost entirely, clumsily focusing on the redemption of a soul, on finding ways and means to humanize this reprobate magician and make him worthy of a good woman's love. The film tries to regroup toward the end but it's too late. Movies that try to have it all often end up with less than they started with.
'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release
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