It’s always curious to see someone preaching a message they obviously don’t adhere to themselves. Maybe a cellphone driver calls you up as they drive to work, reminding you of the importance of road safety; or a chronic smoker asks, “If you don’t have your health, what do you have?”
But when a 100-minute movie preaches to you again and again about the necessity of giving something new to your audience, while spinning a plot too used for a Saturday-afternoon rerun, it’s a whole new level of bizarre.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” has some genuinely funny moments, but its assembly-line story is so overdone that you’re likely to be checking your watch between the occasionally well-earned chuckles.
Beginning as a young, bullied and generally unsupervised child of the ’80s, Burt (Steve Carell) finds an escape from life when his mother gives him his first magic set — complete with instructional VHS tape presented by the legendary Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Burt falls in love with the art of magic, and soon begins practicing his illusions at school, where he impresses and befriends fellow-outcast Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).
Together, the two perfect a duo-magic act and begin climbing the ladder to success, only to find wealth and fame come with the price of monotony and strained relationships. By the time newcomer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) hits the scene with his Chris Angel-style street act, the once humble Burt Wonderstone completes his transformation into unlikable egotist.
Reaching this point in the story, maybe five minutes in, “Wonderstone” is still teasing its potential. However, just a scene or two later Burt’s career is taking a turn for the worse, forcing a journey of self-reflection and a desire to find that special something that made him love magic in the first place. Once this “Rocky III” plot kicks in, complete with training montage, there’s nothing incredible about "Burt Wonderstone."
Carell and Buscemi are consistently funny as the illusionist duo, and Arkin does his best to elevate the few scenes he’s in. When “Wonderstone” is working, it’s a pretty funny movie, flirting with its chance to join classic status, like many of Carrey’s early films — and who knows, in 1995 it may have pulled it off.
But somewhere, the creative team behind this movie switched into autopilot, forcing a story that is ultimately used only as a device to sell a next joke.
There are a few content advisories to keep in mind before deciding if you’re willing to give “Wonderstone” a chance, but they’re about as generic as the rest of the film’s presentation. There’s an obligatory four-letter word used as a shock-punch line, mild drug and alcohol references, sexual and misogynistic dialogue as well as two lead-in-and-cut sexual scenes, all folded into a time line of intermittent milder-language and physical gross-out gags — the latter performed by Carrey’s street magician. Director Don Scardino wasn’t interested in pushing the PG-13 rating, but he wanted to land safely in center field with this buddy pic.
In the end, “Wonderstone” isn’t a terrible movie. There’s a reason Hollywood continues to repackage this story using different professions, but ironically, there’s nothing new or surprising to see here. Had the writers paid as much attention to their story as they did to their gags, “Wonderstone” would be a very different movie. As it stands, the few smile-worthy moments may be better served later from a Redbox or digital rental.
Travis Poppleton has been writing tech and film reviews for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010, and continues to contribute coverage for the Sundance Film Festival and other live events in Utah. You can contact him at TSPoppleton@gmail.com.