It’s rare that a movie demonstrates even a basic understanding of Las Vegas culture, so it’s tempting to forgive all of the other problems about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone when it so effectively captures the Las Vegas magic-show experience. But no matter how well the stage show of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) evokes the golden age of Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton, and the Fremont Street antics of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) capture the condescending arrogance of people like Criss Angel and David Blaine, it doesn’t make up for the fact that the rest of the movie is kind of a mess.
Even the satire is pretty weak: Once director Don Scardino (a TV veteran responsible for dozens of episodes of 30 Rock) and screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein get past the surface details, they don’t really have anywhere to take their portrayal of Vegas’ magic scene. There’s an interesting idea in the tension between old-school performers like Burt and Anton and modern street magicians like Steve Gray, but the movie goes in too many different directions to fully explore it. At various times, the focus is on the rivalry between Burt (whose show ends up getting canned for being too old-fashioned) and Steve Gray; the rift between former partners Burt and Anton; the slow-building romance between the egotistical Burt and his put-upon assistant (Olivia Wilde in a seriously thankless role); and the connection between Burt and a cantankerous old magician (Alan Arkin) he idolized as a child.
It’s all presented in the context of Burt’s redemption arc, which is pretty weak and unconvincing (especially the half-baked romantic subplot). Despite the comedic talent involved, the movie is thin on effective humor, especially in its meager attempts to mock the Angel/Blaine magic style. Although the filmmakers do sometimes capture the wonder of magic (a David Copperfield-designed trick that Burt and Anton perform early in the movie is impressively executed), they too often rely on cheap gags and special effects (the climactic illusion that brings Burt and Anton back to prominence is a complete cheat). For a movie that gets so many little details right, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a disappointingly hard time with the bigger picture.