What happened to Steve Carell? He set the comedy world on fire with his naive-fool shtick in The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, sweetening his performances with a lovely, disarming warmth. The characters he played were occasionally dolts, to be sure, but their intentions were good — just a bit misplaced. They seemed to be whole people, blemishes and all, an uncomfortable reflection of the regrettable instincts we can all recognize in day-to-day life. And, most important, they were utterly charming despite their flaws.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has fits and starts of this charm, but sadly, those moments are few and far between, and rarely involve the titular character: a pompous, chintzy, velvet-clad magician who’s been performing in Las Vegas for more than a decade. Carell steps into familiar territory as Wonderstone, another oblivious character who seemingly should match well with his comic talents. This time, however, the character is more a jerk than a fool — and as anyone who remembers the earliest days of Michael Scott can attest, Carell doesn’t play the former nearly as well as he plays the latter.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Wonderstone, as we’re shown in the opening sequence, was once a lonely child named Albert. He fell in love with magic after his absentee mother gave him a magician’s kit (with instructional VHS included) for his birthday. Under the pre-recorded guidance of legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) — and a convenient, snappy montage — we fly through the decades, landing in the midst of a sell-out show in Vegas. Wonderstone’s gaudy, tired act is built around his so-called “magical friendship” with stage partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), although off-stage, he is anything but pleasant to his ex-friend and closest ally. Magic has become a rote exercise to him, a mechanical song-and-dance number with magic sprinkled in between. His cushy gig is threatened after a street performer named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) — think a more obnoxious Criss Angel — starts to wow audiences with his “edgy” magic. To rebuild his career, Wonderstone will have to rekindle the awe and respect he held for magic as a child.
This all sounds familiar, right? The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is little more than a retread of Zoolander or Anchorman, two wildly successful comedies that effectively popularized this formula a decade ago. There’s nothing wrong with aping, but any movie that aims to do so must put the charm of its cast up front and center. Carell’s charisma is buried under a bloated ego and absolute lack of self-awareness, muting the many jokes made at his expense. If he’s not aware he’s a fool, it’s simply not as funny.