A humorous satire in the vein of Zoolander, 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a creative send-up of modern magic as well as a celebration of old-school sleight-of-hand tricks. Featuring a delightful range of performers, including Steve Carell, Jim Carrey and Alan Arkin, it’s a formulaic but warm and enjoyable studio comedy, skilfully assembled and brimming with creativity. Helmed by 30 Rock veteran Don Scardino, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is one of the first real crowd-pleasers of 2013.
Enthusiastic about magic from an early age, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) grows up to become a popular magician, performing with childhood friend Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) at a prestigious Las Vegas casino. However, the wealthy duo begin to decline in popularity, with ticket sales falling following the rise of anarchic street magician Steve Gray (Carrey) who introduces a new brand of illusionist. Burt’s act is too tired and dated in comparison, leading to him losing his gig at the casino on top of falling out with both Anton and his attractive assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). Washed up and broke, Burt desperately searches for a new gig, ending up as an entertainer at a retirement village. It’s here he meets his childhood hero Rance Holloway (Arkin), who reignites Burt’s love for magic.
Written by Horrible Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (with rewrites by Jason Reitman), the flick initially spends its time observing the childhood lives of Burt and Anton as they become fast friends and develop a passion for magic. Before long, however, the screenplay kicks into gear, assuming a routine of funny bantering, amusing set-pieces and inspired silliness. It admittedly transforms into a predictable tale of redemption and rehabilitation, with the egocentric, preening Burt setting out to rediscover his humanity. But it’s clear that everyone is having a lot of fun with the material, which becomes contagious. The characters are so much fun and there’s good-natured humour aplenty, and the tone is perpetually agreeable. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a degree of heart as well, embodied in a beautiful scene in which Rance explains to Burt why magic is important. Sure, attempts at cinematic maturity are perfunctory in comedies, but it works here.
Director Scardino is a fleet-footed filmmaker, hence The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a briskly-paced distraction that doesn’t outstay its welcome at just over ninety minutes. Scardino aspired to do several of the tricks for real on-screen, recruiting the iconic David Copperfield (who cameos here as himself) to devise a handful of illusions which could be done with practical effects. Some were pulled off with digital effects trickery, but there’s a certain charm in seeing good tricks being performed for real. There are a number of amusing moments throughout, and the satirical aspect is spot-on. One of the best moments comes right at the end, when the filmmakers give us a glimpse at how exactly Wonderstone pulls off his climactic deception. It’s a clever, darkly comic moment that allows the curtain to fall on a high note. It’s just a shame that the film did not go further with its content. This is a PG-13 comedy, and, though it does work in its finished state, one must wonder if the film could’ve been superior if it was more abrasive and dark.
Carell is a perfect fit for the role of Burt. He nails the character’s less savoury characteristics, yet he’s never unlikeable thanks to his charisma and inherent quirkiness. The actor is getting older, but he still has a delightful comic touch. Buscemi, meanwhile, is an absolute winner here, funny and eccentric as Burt’s on-stage partner. However, it’s Carrey who expectedly steals the show. The 51-year-old does not rely on his usual manic, rubber-faced persona, instead going for something a bit more restrained but no less funny. He’s hilariously committed to the material, and he’s used sparingly, which was a well-judged creative choice. One of the highlights of the picture is a child’s birthday party in which Carell and Carrey engage in a “magic-off.” The supporting performances are just as good, with Arkin wonderfully cantankerous and hilariously dry as the cynical Rance, while Wilde is amusing and beautiful as the token love interest. Also of note is James Gandolfini as a casino owner.
To be sure, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is forgettable comedy entertainment; it won’t linger in the mind for too long, and it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But it is tremendously enjoyable and a fun way to spend to an evening at the movies that will probably develop into something of a cult film. Although it could’ve been funnier and wittier, it’s hard to walk away dissatisfied with this appealing comedy.