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Steve Carell needs a new schtick, but The Incredible Burt Wonderstone still manages to pull just enough laughs out of its hat to earn a very mild recommendation.

The Magic

Burt and Jane watch the magic
Burt and Jane watch the magic

The early ‘80s sucked for Burt Weizelstien. As a schoolboy, he was bullied. Being told nobody likes him – and nobody ever will – can certainly leave a negative impression on a kid.

Heck, even Burt’s own mother was too busy to properly celebrate his birthday. Instead, poor Burt would be left with a happy birthday note and instructions on how to bake his own birthday cake – after he runs out to buy his own eggs, that is. At least Mom provided Burt with a life-altering gift one year: a box of magic tricks.

Big things have small beginnings, and for Burt things couldn’t begin any smaller than with Andy Mertz, another outcast with his own set of adolescent challenges. Nobody suspected it, but 30 years later Burt and Andy would be at the top of the Las Vegas game, starring in their own magic show as Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Vigin) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, Fargo).

That’s the setup for this comedy that careens from savvy satire to flat farce. It’s a choppy movie in which the star, Carell, is both a highlight and a liability.

The Prestige

In Burt Wonderstone, the two best characters are Buscemi’s Anton and a surprisingly solid supporting performance from Jim Carrey (The Truman Show) as a new radical phenomenon in the magic kingdom. Buscemi covers the subtle tones of comedy well while Carrey is at the other end of the spectrum, in your face and liking it.

After 30 years, the friendship between Burt and Anton, which figures heavily in their magic show, hits hard times thanks in large part to Burt’s diva mentality and his complete lack of awareness of the changing world around him. One of those changes is the much darker and more violent magic of Steve Gray (Carrey). Think of him as a Criss Angel type. Instead of Angel’s Mindfreak, Steve goes for something more blatantly offensive. He brands himself as the Brain Rapist. Among his extreme acts of stunt magic are his attempt to hold his urine for 12 days straight and spending the night on a bed of hot coals.

Yes, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a comedy. So, somehow, magically, perhaps, it gets a pass on some of its weak points, most notably characters that act out of convenience to the story rather than logic. The great comedies keep the logic; it’s the element that ties it all together, much like the rug in the Dude’s pad, man. But that kind of smarts is what makes comedy a tough balancing act. Not every comedy can rise to the sublime level of The Big Lebowski or This Is Spinal Tap.

The Illusionist

The weaker elements in Burt Wonderstone are also two of its biggest attractions.

Carell’s Wonderstone character is by design a grating diva, but that schtick wears thin. Even when Burt finds himself – in more ways than one – performing magic tricks in a Vegas nursing home with his childhood idol, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin, Argo), his transformation from Vegas diva to humble magician doesn’t quite work. Much like James Franco’s inability to sell redemption in Oz the Great and Powerful, Carell doesn’t quite pull off the trick of making his character turn sympathetic. And what’s up with Burt’s plastic look? His Siegfried & Roy sprayed-on sun tan and product-heavy wig are kinda funny, but the look is more disturbing than humorous.

Then there’s Jane, played by the truly lovely and talented Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy). Jane. Sigh. At one point Jane tells Burt she worshipped him and his magic for 10 years, but she grew to hate him in the span of 60 uncomfortable seconds spent in a closed stunt box on stage. Turns out Burt’s a sex-starved creep. But, quickly enough, Jane lets Burt spend the night at her place when he’s down in the dumps and she goes on to pursue being his new stage partner. Wilde, the actress, works in the movie. She’s great. Jane, the character, though, is a mess.

The Wonder

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a mish-mash of magic riffs that doesn’t quite achieve its own level of movie magic despite some really nice touches.

There’s a good cameo by David Copperfield, but the movie would’ve benefitted from the appearance of more real-life Vegas personalities. Instead, James Gandolfini (Violet & Daisy) plays Doug Munny, a hotel mogul whose dream hotel is called, simply, Doug. But Bally’s appears to be a good sport as the Vegas staple finds itself at the receiving end of some comic barbs.

Another well-done bit comes courtesy of Jay Mohr (Jerry Maguire).  Mohr’s Rick the Implausible is a really nice guy who is completely and utterly lacking in stage presence. That notion is revealed not onstage but through his interactions while hanging out with his friends. He can barely put a sentence together; he’s not stupid, he’s incredibly shy.

It’s in those little things that Wonderstone reveals some heart and some smarts. The broader strokes, such as Anton’s misguided efforts to bring magic to deprived children in developing countries, hit some good laughs, but the heart is in the details. Take out a little of Carell’s semi-trademarked oblivious pomposity and add in a little more of Olivia Wilde’s effervescence and Burt Wonderstone might’ve found a more magical mix.

Much like Burt’s need to rediscover the magic of magic and its ability to “blow people’s minds,” The Incredible Burt Wonderstone meanders and takes a while to find its sweet spot, but at least it manages to end with a really good laugh involving a highly implausible grand finale magic trick.