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"It's not about pulling a rabbit out of your hat anymore. It's about pulling your heart out of your chest."
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins with a flashback to young Burt getting a magic kit for his birthday, a huge box packed with colorful props and the promise of secrets to amaze an admiring audience. I never owned a magic set like that when I was a kid, but I sure wanted one. I loved everything about magic except the discipline required to actually perform the tricks. Instead of hours in the mirror practicing, I was content to read books that explained how illusions were done. It was a detached hobby, free of real passion. Young Burt Wonderstone is drawn to magic as a creative outlet, a gateway to something inspired and exciting. I suspect the people who made The Incredible Burt Wonderstone have more in common with me.
Facts of the Case
After a decade playing to sold out crowds in their own Las Vegas theater, childhood pals and partners in illusion Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, Monsters, Inc.) have lost the magic. Their excitement about performing has been replaced with bored repetition, stale patter, and an endless parade of unappreciated assistants like Jane (Olivia Wilde, Butter). Their already shaky "magical friendship" is turned upside down by edgy newcomer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris), a street magician who steals their crowds and the favor of casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, Zero Dark Thirty). After a desperate stunt fails to revitalize their act, Burt and Anton go their separate ways. Wonderstone is forced to leave the casino and ends up working at a home for retired entertainers, where he comes face to face with his childhood hero Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin, Argo).
Besides a few minutes at the beginning and a quick montage where Burt and Anton are friends who love magic, from the first scene in Vegas they are tired of performing and each other. It's a bummer of an intro, and the immediate rift makes it hard to care what happens. Steve Carell's performance doesn't help. His Wonderstone is supposed to be the heart of the movie, but for some reason Carell decided to go with a stilted stylized delivery that keeps him from being a real person. He's like a Michael Scott improv character. The goofy voice works fine onstage, but it makes less sense as the story switches to heartwarming redemption story. Even Jim Carrey is more believable as Steve Gray, a tattooed newcomer to the Strip whose performing style is less David Blaine than Jackass. The first time we meet Gray he pulls a card out of a gash in his face, but most of his stunts are just self-mutilation—yet another excuse for the filmmakers to avoid showing any actual magic. Carrey is relatively restrained, and does a fine job with the role. It just happens the role has all the depth and subtlety of naming his TV series "Brain Rapist."
The rest of the cast manages to stay out of cartoon territory. It's too bad they don't have more to do. Steve Buscemi is wasted as Anton. He's in the movie long enough to tell us that he and Burt were best friends and partners, and again at the end to tell us that Burt has learned his lesson. The only thing we learn about Anton apart from Carell's character is that he's clueless when it comes to helping the poor. We get a little more from the late James Gandolfini as a slick Vegas mogul. It's not the best film to tragically end a career, but Gandolfini does a great job with what little he's given.
Burt Wonderstone is so focused on skewering phony Las Vegas that it ignores examples of magicians who are in it for the right reasons. Perhaps that's why two of the most compelling characters are those who still have passion for magic. Olivia Wilde's Jane is in danger early on of being a one-note foil to Steve Carell's sleazy Burt, but is later given the opportunity to show off her sharp comic timing. Alan Arkin gives the best performance as Rance Holloway, Burt's magic idol cum grumpy old-timer who helps the fallen star rediscover the joy of performing. Real laughs come few and far between for a comedy, but Arkin gets the most.
Magic is fun. Movies are fun. A movie about magic should be the best thing ever. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn't. Not by a long shot. It's hard to imagine a movie about magic capturing less of the wonder and excitement of the craft. At the very least, a movie about magic should have some decent tricks in it. Burt Wonderstone has a couple neat illusions, but it sidelines the thrilling stuff to focus on unrelatable and uninteresting characters doing unrelatable and uninteresting things.
The problem with the way the film handles magic is most evident in the finale. The plot builds to a magic competition, of course, where Burt and Anton have to pull off the biggest trick of their lives to save their careers. The scope of the illusion is pretty cool; if David Copperfield (who makes a cameo) had done it in the late '80s it would have been the talk of the schoolyard. Of course, magic is only exciting if you don't know how it's done. Not only is the method of the big illusion clumsily telegraphed midway through the film, we are treated to a montage of the duo preparing for the trick. By the time we see them perform it, there's nothing to be thrilled by. We already know they're going to win—because The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is exactly that kind of movie—so in the end they, like this film, are just going through the motions.
Burt Wonderstone hits Blu-ray with a mostly satisfactory 2.40:1 1080p picture. Vegas is a colorful place and the transfer delivers plenty of vivid hues, deep blacks, and solid detail. Even so, the film is uneven—murky in some places and washed out in others. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is front-heavy but dialogue is clear. Your neighbors won't wonder if you've turned your living room into a casino, but it a serviceable mix.
The longest bonus feature is a 26-minute collection of deleted and alternate scenes. Some are just different improvised lines, but many of the scenes flesh out moments and plot lines that were rushed through in the final cut. "Making Movie Magic with David Copperfield" is an eight-minute conversation with the famous magician, who was asked by the director to create a real stage illusion that could be filmed in one shot. He also talks about his cameo in the film and a running gag (edited out of the final version) that had him popping up in disguise throughout the movie. If you want more Jim Carrey, "Steve Gray Uncut" has longer versions of some of his stunts in the movie, intercut with "archival footage" of Carrey riffing as Gray. Rounding out the extras is a four-minute gag reel.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone went through several writers and two directors, and it shows. Despite an impressive cast and the input of real magicians like David Copperfield, the movie isn't very funny or magical. It plays things safe when it should be edgy, and goes for extremes instead of making an emotional connection—not the kind of trick I was hoping for.
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