Beware the Ides of March, by which time expectations have been so lowered by mid-winter dreck that movie audiences can easily mistake mediocrity for genuine merit.
On any other date, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” would be seen for what it is: a generic, fitfully funny mainstream comedy that doesn’t nearly get the best from its name-brand players but doesn’t qualify as a desecration, either. Opening as it does on March 15, this half-baked, over-processed shrug feels like a veritable breath of spring, clearing away the cobwebs of dreary Die Hards, slack Giant Slayers and grating and pitiful Ozes.
In many ways, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” possesses all the structural elements that have worked in the past for its star, Steve Carell: He plays a cheesy Las Vegas magician (the title character) who has worked with his best friend and partner, Anton Marvelton, for 30 years when their livelihood is threatened by a streetwise newcomer. But viewers expecting the kind of chemistry that made “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman” big hits will need to adjust their assumptions: Here, Carell’s sidekick is played by Steve Buscemi, who has his own special brand of bug-eyed appeal, to be sure, but is essentially a straight man to Carell’s strutting, self-tanned diva. When Jim Carrey shows up on the Strip as hipster stunt artist Steve Gray, any hopes of comic riffing between him and Carell are soon dashed by the realization that, true to his character, he barely registers his co-stars’ presence. “Burt Wonderstone” is best appreciated not as an ensemble of inspired talents but as the convergence of very funny actors who are all starring in their own little movies.
Still, “Burt Wonderstone” magically produces its share of modest laughs: With his ombre-blond hair and tribal tattoos, Carrey does a magnificently deranged job of skewering the inane hijinks of such performers as David Blaine and Criss Angel.
Carell, more reserved than usual, channels Siegfried, Roy and David Copperfield (who good-naturedly shows up for a cameo) to create a character who will never end up in his classic repertory but allows him some clever visual humor nonetheless. (One of the few memorable bits in “Burt Wonderstone” is Carell’s one-man rendition of an undoubtedly two-man routine.)
In the hands of better writers, Carell and his co-stars would have had more to do in “Burt Wonderstone” (he’s joined here by Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin); as it stands, the movie’s saggy, formulaic plot and Don Scardino’s stodgy direction lead viewers from sight gag to punch line to sight gag, culminating in a perversely amusing final sequence that, one suspects, also serves as a darkly apt metaphor for the filmmakers’ own feelings about their audience. Like the playing cards, scarves and other tricks up its protagonists’ sleeves, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is momentarily diverting, but it’s also destined to disappear quickly.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and profanity. 101 minutes.