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Incredible Burt Wonderstone: Little More Just Slight of Hand

by Sandra Olmsted

In director Don Scardino’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, two bullied and geeky boys are saved by the wonder of magic and begin a partnership that carries them far. They also get the best revenge because when they grown up, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) become a rich and famous Las Vegas magic attraction.

However, Burt, whose stardom has gone to his head, treats their women assistants horribly, and Anton is a bit of a doormat for the egotistical Burt. Why their assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) endures Burt’s sexual harassment isn’t revealed until later.

Unfortunately, Burt is stuck in the ‘80s and won’t let his and Anton’s act change with the times just because casino-manager Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) is threatening to cancel their contract if their audience continues to drop. Finally, to complete with the startlingly and gross stunts of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a street performer turn online/cable star, Burt and Anton try a new trick, or rather a stunt, which goes badly, and soon they aren’t best friends or an acting team anymore. On his own, Burt makes a half baked attempt to continue doing the act alone, and soon he’s jobless and homeless.

The predictable plot details Burt’s fall, literally and figurative, from fame to doing demos at Big Lots and working kid’s parties.  At a retirement community where he has a gig entertaining the residents, he meets his childhood hero, magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), who lost the joy and wonder in his own magic and gave up performing. Together they may be able to reclaim the magic in their performance and save Burt and Anton’s falling stars.

The acting is strong, but Carell, whose performance is better when he’s being obnoxious, doesn’t really bring much humanity to this character the way he has in other roles as over-the-top outsiders. It’s the supporting cast who turn in much stronger performances, which carry the film. Although Wilde’s character isn’t much more then developed than the stereotypes Burt think all women are, she does a good job with Jane.

However, the difference in Carell’s and Wilde’s ages makes their relationship seems a throwback to earlier Hollywood films in which the middle-aged actor gets the twenty-something girl. Although Anton has fewer scenes than necessary to explain several character traits set up in the film, Buscemi adds his solid acting.

Arkin’s performance as the Rance Holloway, however, is the best part of the film not only for its quality but because he symbolizes the wonder and “belief in the impossible” that magic gives the audience in the cinema and the audiences of film’s magicians. However, Arkin is under used, and more of him and his character would have made the film better.

After Rance has a near death experience, viewers have to wonder if Arkin’s reappearance at the end of the film was an after thought. Carrey, reminding everyone just how talented he is, embodies Steve Gray with that special breed of crazy the actor reserves for playing a lunatic.  The fact that Gray is riding a wave of popularity is the real surprise and provides director Don Scardino room for an excellent parody of the realty shows and a pointed commentary on the gullibility and darker side of reality show viewers.

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s script has only limited laughs and humor in its bag of tricks because the jokes and skits which comprise the story are either too sophomoric or too obscure. However, the peek behind the white rabbit of magic is delightful and fun and generates interest in magic and respect for magicians. On a lighter note, the top loading VCR hasn’t got so many “oohs” and “aahs” since debuting as it does in the nostalgic 1982 sequences, which are wonderfully accurate and a fun opening to the film.

Kudos to production designer Keith Cunningham, art director Luke Freeborn, and set decorator Andrea Fenton. These 1982 scenes set up the eleven-year-old Burt and Anton’s friendship; unfortunately, the audience gets little chance to mourn the loss of their lifelong friendship or to cheer hopefully for its rescue.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone offers little more than slight of hand, but doesn’t deliver the wonder that magic promises its audience. A Warner Bros. Pictures release presented by New line Cinema, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone  runs 100 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language; the film is in theaters now.

More of Olmsted’s reviews can be found at


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