A high concept comedy of the kind Will Ferrell has most been associated with in the last decade, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone assembles an appealing cast for its familiar story and character beats, here applied to the world of stage and television musicians. It opens with an extended flashback in which two bullied children form a bond over a love of magic. Thirty years later, those same males – stage names Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) – have a long-running stage show based around their “magical friendship”, albeit one now stale and passionless after spending over a decade performing the same routines.
Pampered and misogynistic, the once sweet Burt has become an arrogant, ridiculous man-child, not seeing the threat the increasing popularity of a street performer/extreme TV star Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) poses. After a failed attempt to elevate their status for a new audience, Anton departs for charity pursuits and Burt loses his high profile Vegas contract. Circumstances see Burt freed of the wealth he thought he’d accumulated, and he must make his way back to the top from the very bottom, seeing the error of his ways with the help of former assistant and aspiring magician Jane (Olivia Wilde). He’s also assisted by his childhood hero Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), who reminds him that the appeal of magic is all about awe and wonderment. In addition, as is prone in these films, Gray and his brand of performance recurs as a foe presence to overcome.
Throwing in James Gandolfini as a hotel chain owner, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a group of talented performers on game, appealing form. This is important to note, because the film is only tolerable rather than torturous because of its cast’s charisma. TV veteran director Don Scardino and the film’s multiple screenwriters (including Freaks and Geeks star and Horrible Bosses co-scribe John Francis Daley) frequently fail to set up the comedic material in an effective manner, and virtually every joke in the film is a stale miss. The screenplay also has real problems with focus, with a tone of cloyingly bland sentiment present from the beginning, but then being crudely interspersed with a more extreme, farcical brand of comedy more akin to something like Anchorman. The two styles just don’t flow well in unison.
The filmmakers can’t seem to hone in one direction to pursue, also evident in just how many subplots are crammed into the film. Burt and Anton’s friendship, Burt and Jane’s sparring relationship, Burt and Steve’s rivalry, and Burt’s hero worship of Rance all fight for attention in a needlessly overstuffed screenplay; four storylines given equivalent status, equalling the number of people with writing credits for the film. Dwelling on just one of these rapports alongside the main rise back to grace plot might have helped the film come closer to the heights of the best of its high concept brethren; at the very least, the failing gag rate might have been lower.