Jim Carrey easily steals the spotlight in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone away from leading man Steve Carell, but it doesn't take a magician to understand why.
As the titular character, Carell is the straight man, a wildly successful Las Vegas magician who has lost his mojo, and then in one mad, oblivious swoop, loses his longtime friend and performing partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), his long-suffering magician's assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), and his high-paying gig at a hotel owned by obscenely wealthy Doug Munny (James Gandolfini).
"Street magician" Steve Gray (Carrey) is the impetus for Burt's change of fortune; he dresses up his illusions with outrageously painful physical gags -- slicing open his cheek, spending the night sleeping on a bed of fiery coals -- and his popularity, fueled by a cable television show, is rising. That has a direct effect on Burt's formerly sold-out shows, and prompts an attempt by Burt and Anton to modernize their act, which fails miserably, and leads to a trail of troubles for Burt.
Burt Wonderstone is a tanned, smug, arrogant sort with an officious manner. His celebrity status draws women to his bed like men are attracted to strip shows, but his personality increasingly alienates him from Anton and Jane, so that when he hits rock bottom, it takes him a very long time to realize it -- or even to realize that Anton and Jane have withdrawn their support.
Since the film begins with an extended, nostalgic sequence depicting young Burt's discovery of magic as an escape from his lonely existence, as well as the subsequent bond formed between Burt and Anton, it's made clear that Burt must Learn Life Lessons in order to grow as a human being and recapture the enthusiasm he once had. To help him do so, Burt encounters legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), who inspired him as a child, and so forth and so on.
There's nothing magical about the endless setups that have only minimal pay-offs in humor. Too often, sub-plots are developed -- and bled dry -- without shedding light on any of the players. The film, directed by television veteran Don Scardino, based on a screenplay by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, is at its best when it ascends into the nonsensical world created by Steve Gray's act, which is often hilarious as it mercilessly parodies popular "stunt" illusionists.
"True," old-fashioned magic, the kind taught by Rance Holloway and practiced by Burt and Anton and Jane, is praised for inspiring a sense of wonder, as opposed to the more visceral reactions provoked by displays of physical endurance. (What's magical about suffering publicly for your art?) Ultimately, though, it's a conservative message: Renew your enthusiasm from time to time, come up with new ideas, but you must stay within the established borders to enjoy success and happiness.
Which is why Jim Carrey walks away with the picture. His anarchic performance as Steve Gray, a man who is so ambitious that he will do anything to achieve his goals, resonates as a unpredictable madman, a rebel without any pause for his own well-being. In a word, he's incredible.
The film had its world premiere at SXSW. It opens in wide release throughout North America on Friday, March 15.