When director Don Scardino and his screenwriting duo Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are nailing punchlines and taking cracks at old magic vs. new magic, inflated egos, and stage show cheesiness, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone lifts off. Add the timing and delivery from Steve Carell and Jim Carrey – two comically trained actors – and the film is a delight to watch. However, Goldstein and Daley take a few screenwriting turns that don’t always benefit the film and, in fact, dampens the middle section of their comedy.
But first, the main attractions. Steve Carell usually plays an oblivious bumbling fool and plays that role quite well. With the role of Burt Wonderstone, Carell is asked to play a more arrogant and mean version of this bumbling fool. The results are uneven, but much like the film itself, when he’s in his element, he’s very funny.
Here’s the thing with Steve Carell. I appreciate the actor wanting to take on different roles. We’ve seen this variety in Dan in Real Life and with Little Miss Sunshine. In broad comedies and in NBC’s The Office, he plays that type of loveable nitwit so well, that it’s a shame to see him stuck with a character who practically begs moviegoers to hate him.
Burt Wonderstone is a man-child who gets cranky and overreacts and it’s occasionally funny; with the best showcase featuring him and his partner Anton Marvelton (played by an amusing and well cast Steve Buscemi) performing an endurance trick in a dangling glass box. But, when Burt is at his worst, audience’s won’t understand why Wonderstone is acting childish to this degree as well as why he’s so unaware of how he rudely treats others.
This makes things especially difficult to grasp onto when Wonderstone and Marvelton have a falling out, to which the film ditches broad comedy and goes for a more emotional route about a struggling entertainer trying to re-establish himself.
Laughs are still to be had, especially when Wonderstone meets up with his mentor Rance Holloway (played by Alan Arkin), but these soggy scenes feel out of place in something that really should be more of a riotous rivalry story between duelling magicians.
Which brings me to Wonderstone’s worst enemy: Steve Gray (played with gusto by Jim Carrey). Carrey is the definition of a scene stealer with the role that’s supposed to resemble other shock entertainers – such as Mindfreak’s Criss Angel.
He’s sensationally funny and it’s a clear example of why Carrey is a brilliant comedic actor when given a character he’s allowed to have fun with. When Carrey was on the sketch show In Living Color, he would push himself to make certain characters resonate. He would warp his physicality and flesh out a seemingly flat sketch persona into something truly original and bizarre.
Gray feels like a lost In Living Color character. He’s a physical, violent enigma that allows Carrey to elongate his blowhard, nonsensical speeches and then follow it up with well-timed physical comedy. He’s able to take the perfect amount of pauses and balance out all the screams and facial manipulations. It’s a return to form for a comedy legend who is still aware of good character mechanics.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is successful as a comedy, but could’ve easily been a lot better. The introduction to Burt Wonderstone and to the Wonderstone/Marvelton stage show is well played and Carrey is a comic force, however, it’s frustrating to be presented with such interesting, hilarious scenarios – and especially with a character like Steve Gray – only to be pulled out of that scenario and thrown into Burt Wonderstone’s story that is dripping with sentimentality – which is something I’d appreciate in one of Carell’s dramedies, but not here.