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Putting over-the-top descriptive adjectives in one’s title isn’t a great idea. Because The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t, Fantastic Four wasn’t, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone wold have to change its name to The Perfectly Acceptable and Occasionally Hilarious Burt Wonderstone if it wanted to be as accurate as possible.
Pairing the dry Steve Carell with an unpredictable Jim Carrey promised more of a charge than what’s delivered in Burt, a decent comedy about dueling magicians that – ironically – says interesting things about pushing the envelope to entertain the audience … then stops short of pushing the envelope itself.
Wonderstone is Carell’s show. The sometimes (intentionally) buffoonish comedian tries on Will Ferrell’s oversized ego to play the title character, a bullied child who found escape in magic and parlayed it into a headlining gig at Bally’s on the Las Vegas Strip for both himself and his life-long partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, who is tender, childlike and wonderful). But after decades of churning out the same boring stage show night after night, Burt and Anton feel the heat of competition from an up-and-coming, David Blaine-esque street act named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who mistakes magic for torturous exercises in pain tolerance. Can Burt see through these current troubles and learn to love magic again?
The glitzy backstage settings of Burt Wonderstone give director Don Scardino enough wiggle room to work in unusual laughs we don’t see in these man-child-grows-up comedies. Olivia Wilde plays it straight as Jane, the stage assistant hired for Burt and Anton’s gig who’s shoehorned into an uncomfortably awkward romantic sidebar with Carell. It’s hardly a surprise that the Office star can switch gears once again, this time playing an insufferable, impatient lout who earns redemption by following Ferrell’s pre-determined cinematic paths. And Alan Arkin shines in a small role as the once-great magician Rance Holloway, who inspired Burt at a young age and might have a trick or two up his sleeve to help the struggling performer.
Scardino’s resume is littered with impressive sitcom work – from 30 Rock to Cosby -- so its understandable why Wonderstone can feel episodic in spots. As you might have guessed, the film hits its comedic strides when Carell and Carrey play absurd games of one-upmanship (with Carrey winning the battle hands down). The duo’s battle involving a puppy at a kid’s birthday party is surprisingly sharp, while Carrey lands the film’s biggest laugh with a simple act of levitation in a magician’s bar. (The second-best laugh, if you are keeping track, belongs to Buscemi and his efforts to better the lives of Cambodian refugees who only want food and water. Trust me, in context, it’s funny.)
The laughs in Wonderstone may be intermittent, but when they land, they’re large. It’s barely enough to recommend the uneven comedy, though if you’re fond of Carell and/or Carrey, Wonderstone won’t deeply disappoint. And while a magician shouldn’t reveal the secret to his or her best tricks, stick around for the post-credits stinger, which explains in hilarious detail how Burt and Anton pull off a mesmerizing illusion. Burt saves its brightest physical gag for last.