It has been a long time since Jim Carrey has been funny. For the past decade or so, the iconic 90s comedy superstar has been stretching the limits of his acting ability with critical darlings Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Love You, Philip Morris. Meanwhile, films like Fun With Dick and Jane, while satirical and at times quite funny, didn’t give Carrey that space to do his particular brand of over-the-top physical humor. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he’s buff, he’s loopy, and he’s an absolute riot. A truly unique character amongst his extensive repertoire, Steve Gray makes an admirable adversary for Steve Carrell’s Burt Wonderstone and Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton.
Carrey’s bizarre, David Blaine-like antics clash beautifully with the classical magician tradition, personified by Alan Arkin’s character Rance Holloway. In one particular scene, the two meet and in a moment that feels like meta-commentary from the old guard of Hollywood on Carrey’s acting career. Gray challenges Holloway’s authority using nonsensically grandiose metaphors before dramatically gliding out of the bar, leaving Holloway stupefied by his idiotic babbling; the generational gap between these two very funny, very different comedic talents gives a layer of depth to the scene that perhaps director Don Scardino never considered.
Carrell makes for a serviceable leading man as Burt Wonderstone, although he’s not nearly as funny here as he has been in other films. He lacks the bombast of an actor like Will Ferrell, and seems to drift through his role as a washed-up magician with a knowing smirk rather than an all-out commitment to the role. Fortunately, Olivia Wilde’s character Jane gives him enough humanity for the audience to sympathize with his character despite his apparent apathy.
That’s pretty much the end of the praise I can offer, however, because the truth is that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is not a very good film. While Jane is an endearing foil for Wonderstone, she doesn’t have nearly enough to do in the context of the narrative. Moreover, the script is stilted and uninspired, the plot is rote, and the characters are decidedly shallow. While Steve Gray is fun to watch, there’s no context for his villainy, nor is there any clear impetus for the titular protagonists. Buscemi’s Marvelton in particular, while sweet and at times endearing, has almost no character arc whatsoever; he functions simply to drive the conflict between the himself and Wonderstone, and then to inadvertently set up the film’s silly climax.
Moreover, the film is about fifteen minutes too long. The first half of the movie wastes too much time building up what is ultimately a shallow relationship between Wonderstone and Marvelton. The pacing in the first act and a half is slow and the jokes are far and few between, leaving the audience wondering if they’ve just put down money for yet another uninspired schlock-fest comedy. After that laborious introduction, however, the film magically ratchets up the laughs as it steams ahead toward the finish line.
Some have called The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a Will Ferrell sports comedy minus Will Ferrell, but this doesn’t quite hold water. While the film does feature over-the-top protagonists and a cartoonish villain, these elements feel germane to the nature of Vegas magicians. This contrasts with Ferrell’s character in a movie like Semi-Pro, where his antics clash with what an audience expects of a film about basketball.
Your enjoyment of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is wholly dependent on two important factors. For moviegoers willing to look past clunky writing and a saggy first act, there is a lot of heart and innocent goofiness to be enjoyed, particular in the final moments of the movie. Likewise, fans of Jim Carrey’s rubbery brand of shenanigans will find this a welcome and nostalgic return to form for the actor. Burt Wonderstone will be at best an often-times laugh-0ut-loud comedy, and at worst a charming diversion as audiences await the bigger summer blockbusters.
Verdict: Movie Meh
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on April 2, 2013.