Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language.
Starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek, Zachary Gordon.
Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Chad Kultgen and Tyler Mitchell.
Directed by Don Scardino.
It’s a chemical fact that certain things will never blend properly, no matter how hard you stir.
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the new movie starring Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, is what happens when you try. The movie slides back and forth between sentimentality and wacky satire, giving audiences some entertaining moments of each but never finding a comfortable balance between the two. Split into two entirely different movies, it might have been fantastic. As it is, “Wonderstone” is a bit of a mess.
On one hand, the movie is a love letter to the simple joys of magic and the power of friendship. It opens with a charming sequence where a young boy, regularly tormented by local bullies, finds both confidence and a friend when he gets his first magic kit.
That boy grows up to be Steve Carell, and his friendship with that friend (Steve Buscemi) and a magician he idolized (Alan Arkin) serves as a major emotional arc for the film.
At the same time, however, the movie tries to be an off-the-wall parody of the magic world. Carell and Buscemi become an even cheesier version of Sigfried and Roy, though they give the tiger mauling jokes to a more minor character. When the duo tries a more modern trick, it devolves into pants-dropping physical comedy.
The best part of the parody is Carrey, playing a Criss Angel-like performer who talks in mystic-sounding nonsense and mauls himself in front of cameras. Carrey taps into all of his most anarchic impulses, and then marshals them with an almost deranged level of dedication that gives the character a razor-sharp edge. He’s insane, a little bit terrifying, and almost compulsively watchable.
On this level, Carell can’t hope to compete with him. Carell’s strengths lie in relatable awkwardness and inspiring empathy in the audience, which don’t work for the jaded attention-hound that Wonderstone becomes. The result flattens the character’s comedic potential, making him seem like a pale imitation of Carrey.
When it gets back to the sweet, heartwarming scenes, however, he recovers wonderfully. Carell projects humanity in a way Carrey never can, and he does lovely work showing Wonderstone’s attempts to genuinely re-connect with people. Despite the cliches and narrative cheats it took together, I genuinely wanted Wonderstone and his friends to win by the end. Arkin’s presence also makes the sweeter parts go down more smoothly, cutting them with just enough sharpness that the audience’s teeth don’t rot.
What would have helped most, however, is for the movie to pick one tone and stick with it. Satire and sentimentality are inherently contradictory, and flipping back and forth between the two robs “Wonderstone” of most of its momentum.
Instead of an immersive movie experience, it’s like watching two completely different movies argue with each other for a few hours. Both of them had good points to make, but in the end it’s the audience that loses out.