The paycheck movie is nothing new in Hollywood. They happen all the time and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Even actors gotta eat, right? Comedies released in March typically don’t show a lot of studio faith either. So when your big comedic release features Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, and is still getting a dump month release, you can’t set expectations too high. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is no exception. Throw in the fact that director Don Scardino is making his big screen debut after years of working on 30 Rock, and all you have left is hoping the cast can make the most of it.
“Burt Wonderstone” is the name young Burt (Mason Cook) came up for himself 30 years ago after making friends with fellow outcast Anton Marvelton (Luke Vanek). Now, Burt (Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) headline their own show in Vegas at Bally’s. Everything is going well for the duo with the “magical friendship,” until casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) informs them that their act is slipping, along with ticket sales. Burt has also turned into an egotistical, misogynistic showboating douchebag. He uses his fame to bed wide-eyed naïve, beyond belief women like Miranda (Gillian Jacobs), only to have them wake up on his huge bed with a signed photo of them with him.
Outside, street magician Steve Gray (Carrey) has a new act so hot that a TV crew follows him everywhere with the cameras rolling, ready to catch his next disgusting stunt. Doug gives Burt and Anton an ultimatum to spice things up or lose their contract. After the failure of “The Hot Box” (to spend a whole week in a glass cage suspended over the strip), the show is a bust. Burt and Anton “break up,” and Burt tries to take refuge with their assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde). Now Burt must remember what it was that made him love being a magician in the first place, win back his best friend, and find love in the most clichéd place imaginable.
If people thought Identity Thief was a mess, then boy does Burt Wonderstone have a show for them. Things play out funny enough during the first act with a more scattershot approach. However, as things progress, it appears as if director Scardino began to let his cast get the better of him, and you can completely tell when things are scripted versus improv. It makes me wonder how much funnier screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein’s original screenplay was than the final product. Scenes drag on and on and feel as if they’re leading up to a big joke only to finally cut away when it’s painfully clear that nothing funny is going to happen. Seriously, at least ten minutes goes by between each joke that actually works.
It’s when Alan Arkin finally shows up as the aging magician that sparked Burt’s original love of magic that things pick up again (at least in the few scenes he’s in). Arkin may be the film’s saving grace, but that still doesn’t mean it’s worth the ticket. It is worth noting that this is the second film I’ve seen this year where Carell has played the asshole. At this year’s Sundance, I got to see it in The Way, Way Back, and you will too once it finally opens this summer. The Steve Gray character keeps referring to his act as “Mind Rape,” and that’s about how you’ll feel once the film is over. It does end with what amounts to be the film’s bigger laughs, but by then you’re just waiting for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’s credits to finally roll.