“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” starts with a flashback. On his birthday, young Burt is chased and harassed by bullies and left alone by a busy, absent mom.
He opens his present, a Rance Holloway magic kit, and gapes, wide-eyed with wonder, at the illusions he will learn.
He grows up to be a supremely successful and arrogant Las Vegas headliner, forgetting that moment of wonder.
Burt’s story provides a great analogy for the movies and people who make them. Some transcendent, transformative moment leads to a career, then all the magic is stripped away. It takes an enormous amount of courage, will and self-knowledge to hang on to it.
There’s no question that Burt (Steve Carell) will find his heart again. But in the meantime, he must contend with a series of challenges.
He has a falling-out with his best friend and longtime partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). After losing his job, a lovely assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), tries in vain to help.
Worst of all, a vulgar new “extreme” street magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), begins to steal Burt’s thunder.
Finally, Burt meets the actual Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), who criticizes him for a passionless performance in an assisted living community.
In a breathtaking moment, Rance demonstrates a trick for Burt — conjuring a pigeon out of a salt shaker — that effortlessly renews Burt’s sense of wonder. Sadly, director Don Scardino, a veteran of TV, and writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”) kill it with a gruesome payoff about a “partially deboned” bird (a gag given away in the trailer).
Yet the tale presents an interesting, if slightly dark, idea: Magic exists only when the audience believes in it, though the magician always knows it is fake.
The filmmakers also succeed in asking viewers to believe in laughter. Scardino’s nicely paced movie never outstays its welcome and never makes annoying missteps.
The jokes are consistently funny from beginning to end. Many are telegraphed, but they still work, given the high level of skill and passion on display.
Carrey is the movie’s ace up its sleeve. As the heartless, audience-pandering performer, he so completely occupies his character’s mystical, vicious persona, you want to applaud.
He’s at his frighteningly manic best. If the Academy ever considered awards for comedies released in March, Carrey certainly deserves one.