*1/2 (out of four)
Steve Carell can be hilarious and seems like a very nice guy. However: From “Evan Almighty” to “Dan in Real Life” to “Get Smart” to “Dinner for Schmucks” to “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” he’s lousy at picking starring roles.
Carell’s leading-man wins (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Date Night,” “Crazy Stupid Love”) still can be counted on one tripod after “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” an example of what happens when writers have minimal knowledge of or interest in their subject. Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley of the likewise mediocre “Horrible Bosses” (which soon will get a sequel, hooray), “Burt Wonderstone” stars Carell as the tanned, egotistical title magician, whose adolescent enthusiasm vanishes after 10 years of headlining at Bally's in Vegas. His partner and best friend Anton (Steve Buscemi) still gives his all, but the pair has never updated its act, dubbed “A Magical Friendship.” That auditoriums full of even mildly intelligent adults ever would have gone for the hokey, easily understood illusions these two peddle for years stands as just one of the complaints that spring to mind when a comedy is not funny.
Of course, “Wonderstone” takes its audiences for fools, so maybe it's a moot point.
With nothing (positive) to say about this bizarre world, Goldstein, Daley and first-time feature director Don Scardino (“30 Rock,” “Law and Order”) lazily wander away from an early, promising notion of Burt's lifelong need for acceptance. The filmmakers also establish no legitimate competition, suggesting that Burt's rival, Steve Gray (Carell's “Bruce Almighty” co-star Jim Carrey), an annoying blend of Criss Angel and Johnny Knoxville whose magic consists of stunts like holding his urine for 12 days, is a talent-less joke who will go away on his own. (His TV show is called “Steve Gray: Brain Rapist”).
The movie struggles to find a reason why someone would love an arrogant jerk like Burt—the unenviable task falls on Olivia Wilde in a throwaway role as Burt’s assistant.
You can make awesome comedy out of bad magic, proven by the hapless determination of Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) on “Arrested Development.” With a few exceptions, though, legitimate heart rarely comes in a mean-spirited box. The show in the hopelessly stale, shorter-than-it-feels “Burt Wonderstone” didn't need to go on, but it does. And on and on and on.
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