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Steve Carell’s gift is for men who might drown in their own obliviousness. Like his Daily Show reporter, or The Office’s Michael Scott, his 40 year-old virgin lived in terror that someone might catch on to the fact that he knows nothing about subjects he purports to have mastered. When his virgin apes just-us-guys talk and insists that breasts feel like bags of sand, our laughter isn’t just at his absurd cluelessness. It’s at Carell the performer’s ability to lay bare our near-universal impulse to lie to cover up our own ignorance, at the way we’re implicated in this human failing. Remember that scene the next time someone asks if you’ve read a book that you feel you should have—then, instead of pretending, just say “No.”
Carell again plays oblivious in the fitfully inspired magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but he doesn’t play human. As the magician of the title, he’s a dick David Copperfield on the decline, a third-rate casino act done up in chintzy velvet and grinding through the same tricks in the same show he’s been doing for a decade. It’s amusing that Carell left The Office in part to do a movie about the kind of guy who would never leave The Office; what’s less amusing is that Wonderstone—unlike that virgin—has absolutely no idea that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. That means we never get those moments of broad yet recognizable behavior. Instead, Wonderstone is all jackass, cruel and dumb, capable only of the most selfish and least inventive responses, which stiffs the several long scenes of him sexually harassing poor Olivia Wilde (as Wonderstone’s assistant) or berating Steve Buscemi (as Wonderstone’s bickering partner in magic). It’s a Will Ferrell-style part played by an actor lacking abandon. Carell never looks like his Wonderstone is truly into his comic horribleness.
The movie is structured like an expanded Krusty the Clown episode of The Simpsons. At the start, Wonderstone stands near the top of his magician world. Thanks to hubris and bad investments, he loses everything and then has to claw back. This being a mainstream Hollywood comedy, there’s also a redemptive arc even more rote than the soundtrack cues, which include Us3’s “Cantaloop” and C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now” with no apparent irony.
Inevitably, Wonderstone rediscovers the spirit of his childhood, finds something to believe in, and even gets the girl he’s been awful to since the first reel, a development we’re presumably meant to applaud. All this blooming-into-a-better-person stuff gives Carell the chance to return to the mode of several of his more serious comedies, one also often aspired to by Robin Williams, and one that isn’t all that human either: that of the wounded man who heals himself by embracing naif-ishness. It’s no less alienating than his abusive magician routine. The film’s biggest surprise is that we’re expected to feel something besides impatience as Wonderstone, montage-ing himself back into shape, gapes like a child at the wonder of magic.
Outside a well-scripted magician sex scene, and some charming late-in-the-movie stage patter, Carell is never funny and human in the same moment. That’s especially disappointing considering that there’s much here for audiences to laugh at. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (seen briefly as a paramedic) have been generous in the crafting of ridiculous magic acts, several of which become ace comic setpieces. Buscemi is antsy yet beatific as the smarter, less charismatic Roy to Carell’s Siegfried. Scenes of their act pre-crackup are funny enough, but one of a dejected Wonderstone attempting it solo is a comic marvel, evidence of what the rest of the movie might have been with smarter handling of Carell’s obliviousness.
The supporting cast is all first-rate. Wilde is asked to do nothing more than be pretty and earnest and put-upon, but Jim Carrey turns up as a controlled grotesque, a self-abusing “magician” whose act is all about violations of his own body. Done up like a goonish Brad Pitt, or regular Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Carrey applies his cartoon expressiveness to its most judicious ends in years. Also strong is James Gandolfini, as a casino owner with no time for bullshit; he’s the only character in the movie who reacts to anyone else the way that a person might.
It’s notable these days when a big-screen studio comedy is as funny as a good episode of a smart show. Burt Wonderstone hits that mark at least—although Carell’s on-stage mincing to Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” isn’t a patch on Will Arnett’s to “The Final Countdown” on Arrested Development. What was funniest about that was how much Arnettt’s Gob needed everyone else to be into it; his self-esteem was on the line each time he looked foolish. Carell’s Wonderstone just presumes that we are into it already—a mistake shared by the filmmakers.
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