Stage magic has been something of a gift to cinema in recent years.
2006 saw both Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, based on the book by Christopher Priest – which followed the exploits of rival magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale – and Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, set in fin de siecle Vienna and starring Edward Norton as the eponymous conjurer who seeks to tear his love, Jessica Biel, away from a corrupt nobleman using feats of prestidigitation.
Both were period pieces that investigated the idea of magic and the appeal it holds for us, even though we know intellectually that it’s “fake”. Neither, however, were particularly funny.
This situation seems to have been remedied by The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carrell’s newest comedy release. It follows two Vegas superstar magicians, Burt Wonderstone and his partner Anton Marvelton (an immensely likeable Steve Buscemi), their falling out and inevitable reconciliation, Burt’s fall from the spotlight and the lesson in humility it imparts to him. It’s by-the-(magic)-book stuff, but vaguely amusing for it.
Jim Carrey appears as “brain rapist” Steve Gray, a street magician clearly modeled on the likes of Cris Angel, who eschews card tricks in favor of, for instance, self-trepanation. Olivia Wilde plays magician’s assistant and inevitable love interest, Jane/Nicola, with James Gandolfini as oblivious casino owner Doug, and Alan Arkin as retired magic legend Rance Holloway.
Steve Carrell’s Burt is a self-important jerk, all hairspray and teeth whitener, an immaculately preserved Vegas strip waxwork, but we are never given a real sense of how he became like this, though that his loss of love for magic may be responsible. Buscemi’s Anton, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered, well-intentioned individual who, at one point, begin a program to provide magic sets to starving third world orphans in lieu of food and water.
The film’s shifts in tone are occasionally startling: every time Carrey’s Gray appears on-screen things get uncomfortable, which is perhaps the point. Carrey seems to be having something of a year of reinvention with his upcoming appearance in Kick-Ass 2 as a heavily prosthetic-laden former-mob-lieutenant-turned superhero suggesting a continued willingness to take striking supporting roles.
Wilde’s Jane is cute and impassioned, if somewhat underwritten, while Gandolfini coasts by on his physical presence and New Jersey accent. Arkin’s Holloway is lively enough, though he’s mostly there to provide a mentor figure (he doesn’t have a patch on Dodgeball‘s Patches O’Houlihan). The film initially seems set to satirize the whole Vegas lifestyle – Burt and Anton start their act dancing around on stage to Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band – but it settles for just the gags.
With Now You See Me, a thriller about illusionists who carry out bank heists seemingly mid-performance, it seems our fascination with stage magic isn’t going anywhere. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is cheesy, (mostly) good-hearted fun – it doesn’t have the sense of anarchy that accompanied Anchorman, but it makes for a perfectly fine, if forgettable, family flick.