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Magicians are an odd bunch. Anyone who’s seen David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear or watched David Blaine bait Eamonn Holmes on live television could be forgiven for thinking the Magicians’ Guild is filled with narcissistic, egotistical megalomaniacs. Surely these perma tanned, libidinous Svengalis are ripe for parody? And who better than Steve Carell and Jim Carrey to puncture pretensions and shatter illusions?
Young Albert Weinselstein is the proverbial latchkey kid: tormented by bullies, abandoned by his parents and generally just miserable. His life is turned around when he receives a magic set on his birthday and a whole new world of possibilities opens up. No longer shy and retiring, Albert sees magic as a way to make friends, influence people and make his fortune. He befriends another social pariah called Anthony and together they form a dazzling magical duo: Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton.
Fast forward thirty years and Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi), are headlining a gaudy Vegas hotspot. Burt has completed his transformation from spellbound child to obnoxious, boorish man-child more focused on using magic to seduce a succession of women than to entertain his loyal fans. Imagine a hybrid version of Siegfried and Roy except more vulgar and with an even worse haircut. Burt’s tranquility is shattered by the arrival of renegade ‘street’ magician, Steve Grey (Jim Carrey), whose magical repertoire veers more towards self-mutilation and debasement than fannying around with smoke and mirrors.
Suddenly Burt and Anton are cast as anachronistic relics unable to cope with the brave new world of raw street magic where the ability to lay on a bed of hot coals overnight or drill a hole through your skull are considered the very pinnacle of prestidigitation. When their own attempt to recast themselves as cutting edge Criss Angels backfires, Burt and Anton’s partnership dissolves along with their tenure at the hotel. Burt goes from being able to spend $75,000 a month on new bed sheets to being out on the street and contemplating eating one of the rabbits from his act.
The film then descends into the predictable fall and eventual renaissance of Burt and Anton, but not before Burt has undergone the customary quashing of ego and learned to rediscover his love of magic and entertaining people. Burt goes from the highs of headlining Vegas to the lows of being a children’s birthday entertainer. When he has eaten all the humble pie he can take, Burt plots to hit the big time again by creating a death-defying illusion that will shatter everyone’s perceptions about the limits and boundaries of magic. Turns out it basically involves drugging a lot of people which kind of removes some of the mystique around it.
Steve Carell gamely tries his best to act like a giant dick and after his years playing Michael Scott in the American Office, he just about manages to make Burt Wonderstone repugnant, but not too repugnant. Jim Carrey revels in his role as the enigmatic and capricious Steve Grey. There are even guest spots for David Copperfield and Jay Mohr but, criminally, there is no place for the greatest magician of all, GOB Bluth, a casting error that the film never really managers to recover from.
Burt Wonderstone serves up a few laughs, but struggles to optimise the talents of a stellar cast with a by-the-numbers script. If you sigh when someone pulls a coin from behind your ear; if you puff your cheeks out when someone asks you if this is your card; if you feel the urge to punch the wall when someone escapes from a straitjacket whilst in a tanker full of water, then Burt Wonderstone might not be for you. If you want to see a film with Jim Carrey and Steve Carell flexing their comedic muscles together and Bruce Almighty is unavailable then by all means give the Wonderstone a rub.