Steve Carell and Jim Carrey cross wands in this passable comedy about rival magicians.
"Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out." So said James Randi AKA the Amazing Randi (esteemed magician, escapologist and scourge of quackery) while expressing concerns about a particular method of neuropsychological treatment.
Of course, he might well have been divining the release of Don Scardino's lug-headed comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a fitfully amusing caper about conniving conjurers that gently levitates but never quite flies. Brain leakage is assured. You'll like it, but not a lot.
Steve Carell plays the titular illusionist Burt Wonderstone, a Vegas veteran who's forced to go it alone and learn a few life lessons in the process. This is following a devastating showbiz break-up with lifelong stage partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, channelling some of the sweetness he brought to The Big Lebowski's Donny.)
Wonderstone is basically a mash-up of Ron Burgundy and Siegfried and Roy, a sexist moron who's so far behind the times he makes David Copperfield look like Derren Brown. As he struggles to rebuild his career from scratch and rekindle his childhood love of illusion, Wonderstone can only watch in horror as the odious Blaine-a-likey and self-confessed 'Brain Rapist' Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) threatens to steal Wonderstone's thunder – and his audience – faster than you can say 'piff paff poof!'
The rest basically plays out like Anchorman for magicians, with Wonderstone and his band of magical misfits, including glamorous assistant and – because this is, like, the twenty-first century, yeah? – talented performer IN HER OWN RIGHT Jane (Olivia Wilde), working together to defeat Gray and pull off the world's greatest ever trick.
The film feels like a step backwards for Carell. His recent turns in Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and Crazy, Stupid, Love suggested a new, more melancholic direction. Whether he got tired of playing second fiddle to bigger stars or perhaps just fancied getting intimately involved in a full-on Liberace wig 'n' cape situation, who knows, but this is clearly Carell's attempt at creating an iconic idiot role in the style of Derek Zoolander or, yes, Ron Burgundy.
There are occasional flashes of laugh-out-loud goodness, but none of it's really unhinged enough for Wonderstone to take his place next to Stiller or Ferrell's epochal comic creations.
The supporting cast is terrific, though, including a pleasingly slimy turn from James Gandolfini as a miserly hotel owner. Despite looking a little long in the tooth for this kind of malarkey – let's be honest, he's no Dynamo – Carrey has stretchy-faced fun a-plenty as the villain of the piece. And Alan Arkin continues his apparently never-ending mission to steal every film he's in these days as Wonderstone's childhood inspiration, a cantankerous old crackerjack called Rance Holloway.
One sour note is the occasional sexism/general creepiness that threatens to derail the fun. For instance, despite preaching a righteous sermon about moving with the times and how, you know, women can be just as good at stuff as men, the film still deems it necessary to shoehorn in a romantic sub-plot ’twixt Carell and Wilde that feels utterly unnecessary and more than a little eerie given the age difference. Wish fulfilment? Now that's magic.
Shazam! A flashy cast and solid comedy credentials.
Abracadabra! The film pulls out the funny like a rabbit from a hat.
Expelliarmus! Some laughs, sure, but Carell's creation isn't quite classic and the script sends out mixed messages.