Desperate for publicity, old-school Vegas magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) decide to spend a week locked inside a plexiglass box suspended over the Vegas strip. “Remember,” advises their assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), “all you have to do is nothing.”
It’s a funny line, but one also suspects it was the production motto for “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a movie that always seems poised to deliver big laughs but, once the smoke and the pigeons clear, leaves you only with a mild chuckle or two.
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.
Our hero is introduced as an unpopular, bullied child; Lyle Workman’s score goes into minor-key overdrive when poor little Albert (Mason Cook) gets beaten up on his birthday, only to come home to an empty house, a note from his working mom, a box of cake mix and one present. But that present turns out to be a magic kit endorsed by the legendary Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), and the kid is hooked. (Any resemblance between Rance Holloway and Harry Blackstone Sr. is entirely intentional.)
Magic not only stimulates Albert’s imagination, it’s a way for him to bond with fellow outcast Anton, and the two become inseparable. A few decades later, they’re headlining in Vegas with a show that spotlights their “Magical Friendship” — except that off-stage, they’re hardly speaking. Burt has become absurdly vain and pompous, and their show, while still popular, is stale and repetitive.
Stealing their spotlight is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a “street magician” of the David Blaine-Criss Angel school, and while his shtick is more about self-mortification and less a matter of prestidigitation, audiences go wild for his TV show, “Mind Rape.” Which leads to the Plexiglass-box incident, and after that goes awry, Anton leaves the act, leaving Burt to try to do the same show by himself, with no one filling in the other half of the dialogue.
Canned by hotel mogul Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), Burt is reduced to living in a shabby motel and entertaining at an old folks’ home. (There’s no transition from top of the heap to bottom of the barrel; the words “Reno,” “Laughlin” and “Branson” are never spoken.) Will a chance encounter with the aged Rance Holloway help Burt get his magical mojo back?
Take a wild guess. Obviously, in a movie like this, it’s about the journey and not the destination, but screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”) and director Don Scardino keep the proceedings mild when they could be wild. Worse, they assign each character one or two defining traits, and then we see them indulge those flaws over and over and over again until they’re not remotely funny anymore.
Carell and Carrey are operating in their wheelhouses with these absurd showmen, but they’re hemmed in by the script’s limited parameters and they quickly grow tedious. Their redundant cartoonishness becomes so wearying that Wilde and Arkin wind up stealing the movie by underplaying.
We know from “The Prestige” and any number of other movies about magic that illusion is all about what you do while you’re distracting the audience. It’s too easy to look right through “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which means it can never really dazzle us.