Steve Carell knew he had tapped into something special with the golden-maned, velvet-suited magician he plays in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” as soon as he realized no one cared.
“Several times during the weeks we were here, I walked around in full hair and makeup (and) costume, through casinos, and no one batted an eye,” the actor revealed earlier this month during the movie’s press junket at Paris Las Vegas. “Which led us to believe we were on the right track with the character development.
“On the poster, (the costume) looks absolutely ridiculous. But it’s not that ridiculous in the context of Las Vegas.”
“Wonderstone” draws its humor from the schism between traditional magicians and the edgier practitioners of street magic.
When Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) begins mutilating himself for tourists on Fremont Street, the audiences grow older and sparser at “The Incredible Burt and Anton: A Magical Friendship,” the Bally’s extravaganza starring Carell’s Wonderstone and Steve Buscemi’s Anton Marvelton that has ruled the Strip for a decade.
Before long, the insufferable Gray is thwarting Wonderstone at every turn.
“We had imagined and sort of hoped that there were rivalries among them,” co-writer Jonathan Goldstein said of Las Vegas magicians. “And when we met with them, we realized there are. They don’t all love each other.”
Goldstein and his “Horrible Bosses” writing partner, John Francis Daley, spent five days on the Strip, seeing a couple of magic shows a day and talking with their stars.
In addition to David Copperfield, who served as a consultant and makes a cameo appearance in the film, the duo delved deep into the local magic roster — “Deeper than we ought to,” Goldstein joked — meeting with Criss Angel, Penn Jillette, Lance Burton, Nathan Burton, Steve Wyrick and, ever-so-briefly, big-cat magician Dirk Arthur.
“We talked to him for a minute. He didn’t have time for us,” Goldstein said. “He was, like, ‘I gotta go. Call my manager.’ Meanwhile, Copperfield’s spending the whole day with us.”
(Knowing this just makes the scenes with ineffectual magician Lucius Belvedere, the supporting character who keeps turning up with fresh bandages from being mauled by his tigers, that much funnier.)
“I think the biggest thing that we researched with these guys is their personalities and figuring out, like, how they can manage to stay sane doing these shows constantly and in this bubble of Vegas,” said Daley, an actor best known to TV viewers for his roles on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bones.”
Staying sane, though, was never really an option for Carrey’s Steve Gray. While his act more closely resembles that of David Blaine — going days without urinating or blinking, for example — the ridiculously over-the-top Gray has more in common with a certain Luxor headliner than their shared passion for offbeat jewelry.
Criss Angel had his “Mindfreak.” Steve Gray stars in “Brain Rapist.”
“He asked us if we were going to be making fun of him when we met with him, and we said, ‘Nooo,’ ” Daley admitted, somewhat sheepishly, of their interaction with Angel. “We’re not making fun of him. We’re definitely making fun of some of the things that magicians like him do.”
To be fair, they originally envisioned Gray as a bored mumbler in jeans and a white T-shirt. When Carrey signed on, he took the character in a much more grandiose direction. Gray became the kind of guy who, Carrey said, “would mess his hair up for three hours to look like he doesn’t care.” He even designed his character’s elaborate tattoos that give him a wrapped-in-chains look.
For Carrey, the local film shoot was a chance to bring his Las Vegas career full circle.
“I came here to do showcases at the Aladdin … way back when I was a kid,” the former stand-up comic recalled. “And I went to see, you know, Lola Falana with Fred Travelena opening for her, and stuff like that. It was always a great show. They know how to entertain here.”
Before long, he was playing the big rooms, too.
“I used to perform here with Rodney Dangerfield,” Carrey said, “years ago, at Caesars. … And to see (your) name up on that big sign is such a thrill for somebody when they’re starting out, you know? It’s just, like, ‘Wow. I’m really here.’ ”
Carrey eventually took his comedy to a more experimental place — “imitating cockroaches avoiding vacuum cleaners, and stuff like that” — and would completely lose the Caesars audience.
“Rodney Dangerfield used to stand backstage and howl with laughter at my failure,” he remembered, “but just in the most fun way.”
Goldstein and Daley, magic fans since childhood, are hoping for the same reaction. For all the ribbing magicians take in the movie, “Wonderstone” is, deep down, a loving look at the craft.
“Obviously, we have to lampoon some of it, because it’s a comedy. But we didn’t want it to be so broad that it’s disconnected from their real world,” Goldstein said. “Hopefully, that comes across. And, hopefully, it’s not going to hurt any feelings, because it’s clearly not meant to be (based on) any one person.”
Along those lines, while Siegfried & Roy may seem like easy targets, about the only thing they have in common with Burt and Anton is their fashion sense.
But just being in the same vicinity where they and countless others have left their mark on the magic world was “very informational” for Carell. Even if a good chunk of what he learned involved the apathy of tourists.
One of “Wonderstone’s” biggest set pieces is centered around “The Hot Box,” the see-through container Burt and Anton seal themselves in, high above the Strip, in an attempt to out-stunt their new rival.
Filming it went only slightly better than the fiasco depicted in the movie.
“We were suspended by a crane, 60 or so feet in the air in a Plexiglas box on the Las Vegas Strip, and we didn’t even gather a crowd,” recalled a bemused Carell, who also served as one of “Wonderstone’s” producers.
“We tried to gather a crowd. We didn’t want to pay for all the extras. We figured, ‘Well, people will just gather, and we’ll shoot that as the crowd.’ Nobody cared!
“They were on their way to the big shows. And, ‘Oh, two guys in costumes up in a box. Anyway.’ And they were on their way.”
Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@review journal.com or 702-380-4567.