The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 29, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Magic of 'Wonderstone' isn't very dazzling

JOPLIN, Mo. — Movies have often been described as magic. For a period of time, they remove the viewer from the struggles and stress of the real world and create an illusion of something, if not better, at least different.

It seems natural that magic and movies would merge. We've seen many examples throughout the years (even "Oz the Great and Powerful" just last week), and I feel it's safe to say that "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is one of them.

Steve Carell plays Burt, who escaped the world of absentee parents and bullies as a child by using magic. His friend Anton (Steve Buscemi) partners up with him, and as the duo grows up they build their magic act into a multiyear and multimillion-dollar  Las Vegas extravaganza, similar to Siegfried & Roy, without the excitement of tiger attacks.

This success goes immediately to Burt's head, and he becomes narcissistic and egomaniacal -- his love of magic becomes trumped by his love of excess and easy women. When an upstart street performer named Steve Grey (Jim Carrey, in an obvious Criss Angel parody) begins to make waves with his extreme magic, which basically consists of self-mutilation and punishment, attentions shift away from Burt and Anton, causing them to rethink their act.

When they try to compete with their own extreme feat, it backfires and the duo call it quits. Burt goes into a career and personal spiral, leaving him bankrupt and trying to rebuild.

You can't shake the feeling of familiarity while watching "Wonderstone." It strikes you as a Will Ferrell castoff, which can be interpreted as either good or bad. Burt revels in the type of vanity that Ferrell has nailed in so many of his roles, and although Carell does a fantastic job as the smarmy lead, it doesn't do much to challenge him.

Carell has been building his star on both big and small screens, and it seems a shame that he signed on to such a one-note role. He does well with what is there, but there's not much to work with without delving into caricatures of so many Vegas acts before -- a cheap and easy way to try to score laughs.

Carrey has a return to form of sorts, which, depending on your feelings of manic and over-the-top Jim Carrey, may or may not appeal to you. He jumps headfirst into his portrayal of Grey, crossing the line from funny to annoying and back several times. It is a mixed performance, and it doesn't work the entire time, but it does have its moments.

Poor Buscemi and Olivia Wilde (as obligatory love interest/assistant Jane) are put on the backburner for a good portion of the movie. Each plays a role in the redemption and humanization of Burt, but both end up off screen for large chunks of the movie.

It's a shame, as both helped to add dimension to the film, and it would have made for a better transition for Jane and Burt from adversaries to lovers had the relationship been developed a little more.

The film is very by the numbers in its plot progression and development, and jokes that the writers and director hoped would be funny often miss their mark. But there are some good scenes here and there that help to bring some life to the film.

The two funniest and most effective scenes are both when Burt is sealing the deal with his latest conquests. Early in the film, he goes through the motions of taking home yet another audience volunteer and the steps that he has obviously gone through many, many times leading up to consummation. Later, after Jane decides that he isn't an all-around creep, the two work sleight of hand into their foreplay.

Both were short scenes that show the viewer what the film could have been had that kind of inspiration carried throughout, which makes the final product somewhat more disappointing.

"Wonderstone" is a sporadically amusing, eminently forgettable film that wastes the talents involved. It's the kind of movie that you watch when it's running on TBS while you cook your dinner, but you immediately turn to something better when attention can be fully devoted.

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