The Grand Illusion

Old-school magician battles new-style trickster in a predictable but playful parody


“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a clever allegory for our ever-changing world. Consider: The famous magical team of Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) are forced to split when a newer, younger and more daring act usurps their lofty perch. That act, the so-called future of magic Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), risks his life in a popular series of extreme stunts that can only loosely be called magic.

We live in a world — for better or worse — in which what’s old, like Burt and Anton, gets boring quicker than ever. When something new, like Steve Gray, the Internet, easy-pay tolls and cellphones are available, we’re ready to snatch ’em and run. To a large extent, there’s nothing wrong with this. But one thing “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” gets right is that the new fad may knock the old power down, but that doesn’t mean the establishment will leave without a fight.

And so the arrogant, womanizing, mullet-rocking, velvet-suit-wearing Burt picks himself up and fights to get back in the game. An old dog can learn new tricks, after all. He has help: His mentor Rance (Alan Arkin) reignites Burt’s passion for magic, and Burt’s relationship with his assistant/token love interest Jane (Olivia Wilde) helps him retain focus. His goal: Impress casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) in a comedy showcase and win a five-year contract to perform at Doug’s new hotel.

Director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) is both affectionate toward and having fun at the expense of the magic community. Many magicians may be eccentric outcasts, but Scardino revels in the skill, intricacy and craftsmanship of their work. He also has fun with bits that go wrong and right, and stays on theme with affection for older tricks while embracing the new and exciting concepts true magicians are bringing to the fore.

Story-wise, “Burt Wonderstone” is simplistic. Much of Burt’s character arc is predictable, but Carell, skilled comedian that he is, keeps things spirited and fun. Similar to his appeal on “The Office,” there’s something about Carell’s innocent obliviousness that makes him likeable even when we can’t stand him. Side note: Carell said in interviews that he learned basic card tricks and some sleight of hand, but didn’t get anywhere near as good as the real Vegas pros.

What’s odd, though, is Steve Gray, who's sort of a next-generation Criss Angel. Carrey is not the problem: He gets all the over-the-top laughs he can out of the material. The character, though, doesn’t really do magic or illusions. We’re supposed to accept it as magic when the self-proclaimed “brain rapist” doesn’t urinate for 12 days and sleeps on hot coals, but really that’s just self-torture and mutilation. He’s a masochist, not a magician, and as a result, the threat to Burt’s livelihood lacks credibility.

Magicians, we learn from the film, should be inspired by “a sense of awe, wonderment and that anything is possible,” and as an audience we want to feel the same when watching magicians. Admittedly, we don’t quite feel that way watching “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” but we do like that it's genuinely funny and charming, as all good magicians must be.

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