If Las Vegas can take a wide-eyed innocent, whose only crime was rocking a mullet well past its expiration date, and turn him into a raging, narcissistic jackhole, what hope is there for the rest of us?
That may not have been the intended message of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” Then again, there’s little reason to suspect the enjoyably lightweight dueling-magicians comedy ever had an intended message.
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) fell in love with magic in 1982 when he received the ultimate birthday gift: a box of tricks endorsed by Stardust headliner Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Sure, the illusions were cool. But young, friendless Burt was sold on a life of magic as soon as he popped the accompanying cassette into his giant VHS and heard Holloway’s assertion: “Everyone loves a magician.”
Burt bonds with a fellow bully magnet, the younger version of Steve Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton, over their shared love of sleight of hand. Before you can say “Alakazam!” they’re on their way to becoming the toast of the Strip at Bally’s with “The Incredible Burt and Anton: A Magical Friendship.”
Fast-forward a decade and their fantastically lame show still hasn’t been updated. Using the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” as their theme song, Burt and Anton dance like people who’ve never heard music and just regained the use of their limbs — after those limbs had been transplanted from an assortment of people who’d also never heard music.
But their onstage relationship is just another of their illusions. That “magical friendship” has been reduced to what the latest in their Spinal Tap drummer-style revolving door of assistants deems a “miserable bitchfest.”
Vegas clearly has gone to Burt’s now-smarmy head. He’s been Botoxed, buffed, bronzed and bleached to the point where he could double as a RealDoll.
He uses the duo’s signature trick, “Man Head, Lady Body,” to bring attractive audience members back to his pimped-out suite and its centerpiece, an “octuple king, the biggest bed in Vegas.” Liberace would have done a spit-take at the opulence of it all.
When Jane (Olivia Wilde), their new assistant, is thrust into the act mid show, Burt wastes no time propositioning her while dodging blades during a gleefully cheesy trick known as The Burt Locker.
Burt’s legendary ego is shaken, though, by the arrival of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a pretentious, Criss Angel-style street magician with a Jesus complex who mutilates himself on Fremont Street as part of his cable series, “Brain Rapist.”
Gray’s act is so extreme, onlookers vomit before bursting into applause.
As a result, the “Magical Friendship” crowds grow older and smaller, and Bally’s honcho Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) demands Burt and Anton finally update their act if they want to have any hope of headlining his flashy new namesake casino, Doug.
Their attempt to out-stunt Gray — who famously holds his urine for days on end and sleeps atop hot coals — goes horribly, inexplicably wrong, thanks to one of Carell’s patented, world-class freakouts. After 30 years with Anton, Burt finds himself alone, out of work and utterly incapable of surviving life outside of a hotel. (Following a meal at Jane’s apartment, he leaves the dishes outside her front door.)
Carell and Carrey have marvelous chemistry, and watching them try to top each other is a joy. They’re fully committed to their over-the-top characters, even though nothing about either of them resembles an actual living, breathing human. Once Burt rediscovers his love of magic following a chance encounter with Arkin’s long-retired Holloway, he still feels like an alien presence.
As nice as it is to once again see Buscemi’s kooky side, something director Don Scardino previously tapped during his days on “30 Rock,” its presence puts too big of a burden on Wilde’s Jane to ground the piece in any sort of reality.
“Wonderstone” also has a huge problem with its pitch. In the early going, Burt is so outrageously broken that, to be the bad guy, Carrey is forced to crank his manic meter up to the setting marked “full-blown sociopath.”
Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley spent parts of four years working on the script, which already should have felt a bit dated when they started. After all, David Blaine brought a less-exaggerated brand of street magic to a network TV audience in 1997.
And the grand finale, although hilarious, feels like more than a cheat. It’s completely out of character for everyone involved.
Regardless, the writers’ take on “Wonderstone” is nearly as sweet as their hit “Horrible Bosses” was crude.
It’s the sort of silly, escapist fun that should thrive on cable for years to come.
That’s still a pretty impressive trick.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.