‘Wonderstone’ lacks comic magic

03/14/2013 2:33 PM

03/14/2013 2:34 PM

An all-star comedy that leans on its stars to conjure laughs out of thin air, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is about veteran magicians who find themselves suddenly less relevant when Mr. New and Edgy shows up and upstages them on the Vegas Strip.

An art-imitating-artist moment for Steve Carell and Jim Carrey? Maybe. But when you’ve got those two, Oscar winner Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini in your cast, the four guys you paid to write this thing should have no trouble finding a laugh a minute.

We meet Anthony and Albert as bullied 10-year olds who find escape, and purpose, in a “Become a Magician” kit – VHS instruction tape included – featuring veteran prestidigitator Rance Holloway (Arkin). Thirty years later, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have their own theater at Bally’s, a steady fan base, gullible groupies (for Burt) and a boss (Gandolfini) who puts up with Burt’s diva demands and lifestyle.

They go through assistants like candy, and Burt is so arrogant that he calls them all “Nicole,” even after the latest Nicole quits and fetching backstage assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) is pressed into service. First good gag of the movie? The skin-baring bombshell Wilde (“TRON,” “Deadfall”) going all stumbling, demure and embarrassed by the skimpy stage costume.

The crowds still come, even though this act is as stale as its “Abracadabra” theme song (Steve Miller’s last big hit), even though Burt hurls insults at Anton backstage after every “impossible feat of impossibility.” Until the day that Steve Gray rolls into town.

Carrey turns Gray into a long-haired guru of the gross – a magician/stuntman who rolls up with a guerrilla film crew and stuns bystanders with routines that involve self-injury, followed by self-stitches. Carrey, sporting an “Escape from What?” tattoo and a Zen master-meets-street thug ethos – “Bad things don’t happen to us, they happen FOR us” – makes this guy so scary and fun that you wish his “Brain Rapist” TV show were real. Because we’d watch it.

But to Burt? Gray’s not a real magician: “He doesn’t even have a costume.”

“Burt Wonderstone” lets us see the rise and then fall of Burt and Anton, their changing hairstyles and unchanging act. It takes Burt from the man with the “biggest bed in Las Vegas” – “Would you like to see it, nakedly?” – to a drunk reduced to entertaining the seniors at a retirement home.

That’s where he meets Rance and tries to get his old magic mojo back.

The laughs come fast and furious for about 30 minutes, then they fade into occasional chuckles of recognition and the odd hear-Carell-make-funny-whimpering-sounds gag or see clueless Anton deliver unwanted magic kits to starving Third World kids. Few jokes take us by surprise, but enough comic haymakers land to make “Burt Wonderstone” credible but not exactly incredible.

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