Critics call the picture a return to form for the "Ace Ventura" funnyman and a reminder of the intense and inspired commitment that made him one of the top comedians of the 1990s and early aughts.
Reviewers were less enchanted with the film itself, a wry look at a Vegas magician (Carell) who tries to stay relevant after a new act (Carrey) lands on the Strip and begins sucking up all the attention. The Warner Bros. comedy debuted Friday to a lackluster 40 percent "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Despite a talented cast that also includes Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin, Alonso Duralde complained that the film was oddly defanged. Writing in TheWrap, he grouses that because the actors are saddled with a fizz-less script, they end up hamming it up to overcompensate for the lack of laughs.
"The film falls squarely into the formula that Will Ferrell popularized — let’s find something dorky and look at characters who take it totally seriously — but 'Burt Wonderstone' can’t decide if it wants to bury glitzy, cornball, Vegas-style magic or to praise it, resulting in a comedy that occasionally talks tough but ultimately reveals a bland, mushy center," Duralde writes.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden implies that Ferrell might have been better suited to the kind of broad comedy that the part demands. He writes that Carell goes soulful when he might have been better off playing a caricature.
"This is not to say that Mr. Carell isn’t just fine, only that his performance, as impressive as it is, lacks a shark’s bite," Holden writes.
Not that Holden thinks too highly of the material. It sounds as though he would have been perfectly happy skipping the proceedings and catching the latest Ricky Jay show.
"'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' can’t transcend the fundamental problem built into movies and television shows about magic," Holden writes. "It isn’t really magic if you’re watching it second hand. There is nothing comparable to the wonder and suspense of a live performance when it’s either going to happen or not. That may be why the movie’s actual magic tricks, although well-executed, slip your mind."
Slate's Dana Stevens found the movie to be a slog, enlivened only by Carrey's performance.
"As the dip-dye-tressed, mystical-profundity-spouting Steve, Carrey is almost frighteningly committed and precise," Stevens writes. "The character, essentially a professional masochist, is just the kind of disturbed true believer he was born to play."
Like Holden and Duralde, she found little to praise about the rest of the picture. It could have been so much better if only they hadn't played it so generically, she despairs.
"'Burt Wonderstone' actually hits some of these marks with a fair amount of style, but the plot points themselves are so predictable, and the stretches in between so sparsely populated with jokes, that it would be impossible to call this a successful comedy," Stevens writes.
Kenneth Turan could also be found along the naysayers. The Los Angeles Times reviewer says the film falls far short of the "incredible" in its title and can't make up its mind if it wants to be a manic diversion or a light-hearted and inspiring look at ambition rewarded.
"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," Turan writes. "But it doesn't seem to know how to consistently get the best out of them."
While others bemoaned "Burt Wonderstone"s' lack of ambition, The Chicago Sun Times' Richard Roeper focused on what the film got right, mainly its absurdist humor. He writes that the film could have been hackneyed and overly sentimental, but the cast supplies enough vinegar to make "Burt Wonderstone" a dark comic gem. Like Stevens, he saved the bulk of his praise for Carrey.
"He's physical, he's intense, he's ridiculous — and he made me laugh more than any comedic character in recent memory," Roeper writes. "It's a performance of sublime stupidity."
Moira Macdonald isn't clearing off space in the annals of great movie comedies for "Burt Wonderstone, but the Seattle Times movie critic writes that the film is an enjoyable diversion, provided audiences don't have out-sized expectations going into it.
"Some movies are very good but not enjoyable; other movies are enjoyable despite being not particularly good," Macdonald writes. "'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,' a loosely comedic tale of Las Vegas magicians, fits neatly into the latter category; you watch it thinking that it should be smarter and funnier, but you have a pretty good time anyway."