The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: SXSW Review

Burt Wonderstone SXSW Still - P 2012

Burt Wonderstone SXSW Still - P 2012

Some laughter but little magic in by-the-book Las Vegas comeback tale.

"30 Rock" director/producer Don Scardino offers a story about magicians (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi) whose routines have fallen out of fashion.

AUSTIN — Comebacks are as easy as pulling rabbits from a hat in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a showbiz tale that's enjoyable but as familiar as the old-school routines its magician heroes dish out. A top-drawer cast guarantees some commercial appeal for this theatrical outing by small-screen vet Don Scardino, but the film isn't nearly as fresh as the show for which he's best known, 30 Rock.

Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi play Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, childhood nerds who bonded over magic tricks and grew up to be headlining partners in Vegas. Stuck in a glam timewarp, they still wear spangled jumpsuits and too much hairspray while reciting banter they've used for a decade.

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While Burt revels in the excess of stardom and Anton sweetly endures his jaded partner's abuse, new trends in magic are making them irrelevant: Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), an endurance-stunt performer in the Criss Angel-/David Blaine- mold, is drawing attention out on the Strip and online. In a half-baked attempt to outdo him -- instigated by the casino mogul (James Gandolfini) threatening to end their contract -- the men have a near-death experience and dissolve both their act and their friendship.

As its title suggests, the film follows Burt on his pathetic fall from fame, which ends in a gig at a retirement home for aged entertainers. But Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley's script gives us little reason to care about this humiliation, and we're still not done relishing Burt's comeuppance when he finds his path to redemption: At the retirement home, he meets Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the prestidigitator who inspired Burt and all his peers to learn magic in the first place.

As an old-timer who knows more about pleasing crowds than any of his successors, Arkin is well positioned to hover a bit above the rest of this movie; in a single sarcastic reaction shot, he earns more laughter than any ten-minute stretch here. But Wonderstone underuses him, spending time instead on Burt and Anton's assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), who knows more about magic than her looks suggest and is destined to fill a romantic-interest slot as artificial as a bouquet of plastic flowers springing out of a trick wand.

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Carrey fares a bit better, enjoying his character's pompous anti-glitz shtick, but the extremes of his stunts -- sleeping all night on hot coals, drilling a hole in his skull -- are as broadly drawn as the stale act Burt & Anton have been peddling. Neither is quite believable as something that might exist in today's Vegas -- and as Rance Holloway would be the first to tell you, making the audience believe is more important than all the slight-of-hand and planning that makes an illusion work.

Production Companies: New Line Cinema, Warner Bros.

Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey

Director: Don Scardino

Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Producers: Chris Bender, Steve Carell, Tyler Mitchell, Jake Weiner

Executive producers: Richard Brener, Sam Brown, Vance DeGeneres, Charlie Hartsock, Diana Pokorny, J.C. Spink

Director of photography: Matthew Clark

Production designer: Keith Cunningham

Music: Lyle Workman

Costume designer: Dayna Pink

Editor: Lee Haxall

PG-13, 96 minutes