Two geeky kids, beaten up and left behind in the midst of middle school, find magic one day, and recognize that there’s more to life than being shoved in lockers and escaping swirlies. Thirty years later, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are a blockbuster act in Las Vegas, but the joy of magic has left Wonderstone and the “magical relationship” between the two is broken. When street performer Steve Gray (Jim Carey) of the television show Brain Rapist horns in on their action, the fraction breaks them apart and they must re-examine who they are supposed to be.
The film isn’t laugh outloud funny, but it has clever moments, and certainly includes a star-studded cast that rises above the goofiness you might expect from this magical spoof. James Gandolfini plays the overbearing casino owner who can’t remember how old his son is; Alan Arkin plays the Rance Holloway, the elder magician who taught Wonderstone via some ancient VHS magic tapes; and Olivia Wilde shines as Jane, the production assistant-turned-magician’s assistant who sees good in Wonderstone even at his darkest hours.
The main active storyline is old school illusionist Wonderstone versus new wave gross-out artist Gray. It’s obviously the battle between ideals but it’s also a look at what happens when a new way comes along and doesn’t appreciate the way that the old ways allowed the next generation to flourish. But that “old way” in Holloway establishes the main thesis of the moral/emotional storyline: the rediscovering of joy or faith in magic.
Wonderstone is going through the motions, collecting paychecks, getting women in bed, and making a jerk out of his fame. He’s horrible to Marvelton and to Jane, but it’s all about the fact that he’s forgotten who he was, the nerdy kid who found magic as an outlet. Rediscovering his joy in the mysterious and his faith in making people experience “wow,” Wonderstone recognizes who he’s supposed to be because he figures out who he was to begin with in middle school. It frees him to be the right person to Julia, to Marvelton, to the public who deserve better than Gray.
We’re often Wonderstone: we forget where we’ve come from, how we got here, who helped us get here, and who we’re meant to be. It takes an intervention of sorts, by another person or the gentle move of God in our lives. It takes a “repentance” from the way we’ve been before, and a desire to be better than we are. It takes forgiveness (which the trio of Wonderstone, Marvelton, and Julia experience), and it takes a recognition of the “magic” or spirit that moves in our world.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn’t a great movie but it’s got some magical moments, some life lessons to teach us, and in the process, it may just wow you, too.