THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE is a sweet little film about finding, losing, and then rediscovering a sense of wonder. Any sense of the ponderous, however, in telling this tale with a definite moral is more than offset by the gentle silliness with which the story is told. Its a deft bit of sleight-of-hand as befits a movie about magic.
The magic of the stage variety, and its devoted practitioner is Albert, later Burt (Steve Carell), an awkward kid with a bully on his back, and a mother working too many shifts to bake his birthday cake. She does, however, come through with a gift, a beginner magicians kit, and it will change Alberts life. And that of Anton (Steve Buscemi), his best friend since childhood, who bonded over being misfits, and were transported when they were both swept up in the wonder of creating illusions.
Years later, they are at the top of their game, headlining in Las Vegas for adoring fans and raking in the big bucks, but for Burt, its no longer fun. Doing the same act for 10 years has robbed him of the visceral joy in mystifying crowds, or any sense of current fashion. Its also created a rift with Anton, a good-natured schlub who is at the end of even his capacity for loyalty. Burt goes from wide-eyed novice, to delighted artist, to pompous ennui and then, inevitably, to overnight has-been, as the new sensation, Steve Gray (semi-manic and suitably creepy Jim Carrey) changes the magic game from illusion to stunts, shocking hordes of eager fans who flock to him not to be enchanted, but rather to be grossed-out. A development not lost on the piquantly monikered Doug Munny (James Gandolfino), a casino owner who may not be able to remember how old his son is, but knows for sure a money-making proposition when he sees it.
There is a predictable arc to this story, yet Carell fleshes out his character without overplaying it. He takes the chance of being genuinely unlikable, snarking and sulking and generally treating people, particularly women, like used tissues, but he makes it interesting because he does it without registering any real pleasure in it. He firmly entrenches Burt in a palpable boredom that is its own poetic justice, as is the comeuppance that arrives in the sudden anonymity and compromised cash flow. Of course, with a story of this kind, the setback sets Burt back on the path to why he became a magician in the first place, and because there is a fable-like aspect to the proceedings, its his childhood idol (Alan Arkin) who points the way.
Is Arkin incapable of giving a bad performance? The way he brushes off Burt, only to be worn down by him is a master class of nuance and of comic timing. The sigh is that of a man who has lived a rich full life, but might have room for just a little more.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE takes more than a few sly digs at the short-attention span of the general public, as well as those members of same who confuse novelty with talent, before moving on to the soulless greedy types willing to pander to them. But it spends far more time celebrating people who find true art as (almost) its own reward. Daringly original, no, but showing real heart and a robust sense of the absurd, its a whole lot of fun.