Director: Don Scardino
Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini
Running time: 85 minutes
Leave it to Jim Carrey to kick off this year's SXSW Film Festival with some pleasant debauchery. Walking onto the Paramount Theatre's stage, alongside his The Incredible Burt Wonderstone co-stars Steve Carell and Olivia Wilde, Carrey earned an eruption of applause when he said of the film festival's host city, "Austin is like a big, beautiful woman, and I just want to take advantage of it."
And with that, the sold-out arena was full of happy, laughing spectators ready for a Hollywood comedy that delivered the jokes. And, for the most part, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone gets the job done, using a bunch of self-centered, pompous characters to poke fun at the silly but still undeniably fascinating world of professional magicians. Directed by feature rookie Don Scardino (whose previous experience comes from producing, as well as directing episodes of, 30 Rock), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone hits all of the predictable beats associated with the redemption tale: Man has it all, man loses it all, and then, with the help of the people he'd scorned during his reign, man gets it all back.
In this case, said man is the titular Vegas showman, an arrogant womanizer who went from being bullied as a kid to selling out Bally's and making tons of cash for the casino's equally me-centered CEO, Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). He's been doing so with the help of his childhood pal Anton (Steve Buscemi), now Anton Marvelton; together, they're "The Incredible Burt & Anton," with the subhead, "A Magical Friendship." As the films opens, they hate each other's guts, mostly due to Burt's ridiculous methods of ego inflation. For example, when he takes home a female fan for sexual relations, Burt makes them sign a waiver so that they won't blame him for any damages caused by epic intercourse.
Further complicating their situation is the arrival of Steve Gray, a.k.a. the "Brain Rapist," a Criss Angel-like street magician played by Jim Carrey with the kind of magnified silliness he hasn't shown since his Ace Ventura. He's a problem for old-school magicians Burt and Anton, who look on in confusion as crowds go crazy for Steve's absurd "tricks"—i.e., holding his urine for multiple days and not blinking while someone unloads pepper spray into his eyes.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is, at its best, a showcase for several inspired comedic pairings, namely Carell and Carrey, who get to go far beyond the chemistry they initially forged in Bruce Almighty. A battle of dim wits where Burt and Steve compete to be the most memorable magician at a 10-year-old kid's birthday party is comedy gold. It's also indicative of what gives the film its strength: Allow Carell to play alongside other talented funny men (and women—Wilde scores a few big laughs of her own) and he's untouchable. Give him too much of a good thing, though, and he's liable to wear thin.
During its sluggish middle section, Scardino relies too heavily upon Carell's mostly one-note schtick—Burt's conceitedness is funny in doses, but when it dominates the film, the whole thing drags. Imagine an entire movie built around Carell's Anchorman character, Brick Tamland—we'd all be calling for Ron Burgundy to come back. Here, it's Carrey's over-the-top antagonist who's underused.
As if conscious of that issue, Scardino and screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein wisely pull back from the all-Burt approach for the film's final section, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is all the better for it.