"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a crass, chaotic jumble of a movie that squeezes several laughs out of the raw talent of its performers. But it's also painfully less than the sum of its parts: Steve Carrell, as the titular Vegas magician, plus Steve Buscemi as his partner, James Gandolfini as the plutocratic casino owner, Jim Carrey as a send-up of douchebag magicians everywhere (specifically those named David Blaine and Criss Angel), Alan Arkin as a retired curmudgeon magician. Instead of darkly hilarious, or perversely strange, or consistently silly, "Wonderstone" sprays all those elements onto a sort-of feel-good comedy that mostly feels like a scattershot approach to nowhere. To put it in the most dire terms possible: Jay Mohr appears for about six minutes as a character named Rick the Implausible and gets nearly as many laughs as Carrell does in the remaining 94 minutes.
"Wonderstone" begins with little Burt getting gut-socked by a bully who tells him no one will ever like him. But when Burt receives a magic kit for his birthday, he attracts another lonely boy, Anton, who becomes his lifelong sidekick. Thirty years later, they've become bona fide stars. Downside is, by playing the same room in Vegas with the same sagging act for a decade, Burt, inured from real life by his fortune and fame, has become a jackass of the highest order. This transformation to a woman-using, verbally abusive burnout happens totally out of view — just one story element this potholed script expects you to write on your own — but, OK, we now instantly are supposed to loathe the protagonist. With that, the confusion begins.
Appropriately, shifting audience tastes bring his comeuppance. Carrey's magician, in the sharpest bit of parody "Wonderstone" serves up, drags magic into a masochistic black art with tricks such as marking a playing card, concealing it and then cutting it out of his face. Burt and Anton, pressed to keep up, instead flame out spectacularly, and on his own, Burt proves to be a sad disaster. The rest of the story tracks like a letter V — a decline, an ascent, ta-daaaaaa. The two semi-surprises in store involve a) Burt's relationship with his assistant (Olivia Wilde), who forgives his jackassery at ludicrous speed and b) a finale that, while borderline funny, trashes any claim the movie had toward representing magic realistically.
In context, that's a shame. One of the tensions in "Wonderstone" is a real one: the possibility magic has to blow people's minds, and how that power makes magic either incredibly powerful or, done badly, incredibly disappointing. At first we see Burt, with his sequined maroon jumpsuit and tragically literal choice of Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra" as his theme song, representing the cheeseball school of magic. Gradually he finds his way back to some pretty decent tricks. When "Wonderstone" lets the performers simply perform, the giddy thrill is the magician-comedy equivalent of watching stunt doubles risking limbs. The filmmakers cut a few corners via edits and digital effects. But some of the tricks? The sleight of hand, the parlor classics? Those are the finest parts of the movie. They arrive as a relief, a chance to wonder how (instead of why) did they ever do that?