In Martin Scorsese’s exquisite Hugo, the mechanics of illusion are rightly depicted as the first steps toward the mechanics of the cinema, making for a heady and genuinely heartwarming study of the very real work of movie magic. The role of the illusionist as performer offers a spectacular metaphor for ambitious, unleashed artistry, and the archetype has been vibrantly utilized on film by Ingmar Bergman, Edmund Goulding, Christopher Nolan, and Frank Tashlin. Orson Welles even used illusion as a key to his unclassifiable investigation of the medium, F for Fake.
This idea comes to mind early on in Don Scardino’s mildly funny, hugely frustrating The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Steve Carell’s titular washed-up Vegas magician finds himself both at odds with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), and in competition with Steve Grey (Jim Carrey), a Criss Angel-type street magician who prizes endurance over spectacle. In its initially galvanic variety of distinct performers, the film shares the same sense of sprawling reflexive character detail that’s defined Judd Apatow’s recent works, especially Funny People. The inclusion of Alan Arkin and Jay Mohr as Burt’s hero and his defunct colleague, respectively, only reinforces and amplifies that appetite for nuanced character.
Including James Gandolfini as a gaudy hotel magnate and Olivia Wilde as Jane, an up-and-coming illusionist who befriends Burt, the cast energizes the rigid and convoluted script by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who burden the inviting setup with fatty and familiar narrative tropes, including an utterly weightless romance between Burt and Jane, and an honest-to-god magic-competition climax. The performers help to abstract some of these predictable turns, and there are a few inspired comic flickers, including Grey’s sudden levitation out of a bar and Burt’s “biggest bed in Vegas,” but the film is bungled by unyielding, crude attempts to fit these fascinating characters and wild gags into an easily recognizable formula.
An overall competent but indistinct helmer, Scardino ultimately conveys a nagging indecisiveness in how to shape the story as it moves along its predictable track. In its most alluring moments, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone resembles a robust character study of Carell’s egotistical entertainer, but these moments are consistently fleeting, making room for Burt’s underdeveloped conflict with Carrey’s artist-masochist and his relationship with Jane, which feels artificial from the outset and follows a predictable trajectory. Visually, Scardino employs an easy, if also uneven, tone that allows the more surprising, absurdist sight gags to hit forcefully, but otherwise conveys nothing but indifference.
Would that the filmmakers reflected on the story’s flagrantly nostalgic attitude through a more stylish or concise aesthetic, or a zippier sense of conversational comedy in their unfocused narrative design. Instead, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is overtly suspicious and critical of the new and only serviceably romantic about the old. By the end, the jokes feel like they’re only good enough to elicit an ending, and Scardino eventually obliges in a flutter of hurried loose end-tying, like a magician desperate to tell you how he did it all.