In the Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi play world-famous Las Vegas magicians. Carell wears spangled red velvet and a poufy wig that makes him look like Barry Manilow, and Buscemi sports an even more unreal-looking lanky mop. Each night, they kick off their act by doing a smiley little dance to ''Abracadabra,'' that cheesy-catchy Steve Miller Band classic. This trademark fanfare places the two somewhere between Siegfried & Roy and the head-bopping Butabi brothers from Saturday Night Live, and I chuckled, with mild pleasure, at the dopey kitschiness of it. I assumed (or at least hoped) that the dance would be a warm-up for the much bigger laughs to come.
Carell's Burt Wonderstone and Buscemi's Anton Marvelton have been partners ever since they were childhood geeks who began inventing their own magic tricks back in the early '80s. They've been doing their sold-out show at Bally's for so long now that they're sick of it, and sick of each other, too. Burt, off stage, is a toxic diva who makes groupies sign contracts and treats Anton like an indentured servant. One night, the two are working with a brand-new assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), performing a classic trick that requires Burt and Jane to huddle inside a box, which Anton jabs with swords. Squeezed inside the compartment, Burt asks Jane to sleep with him that night, and when she turns him down, he throws a hissy fit. It should be an over-the-top funny moment, as Carell lashes out with a faux-aristocratic hauteur. He's going for a Will Ferrell meltdown, yet there's something a little too controlled about Carell's bombastic nuttiness. The effect isn't hilariously insane. Once again, it's just kind of mild.
Burt Wonderstone seems to be reaching for the tone of early Farrelly brothers movies like Kingpin, and also for the madcap hostility of Zoolander. Yet in too many scenes, the comedy doesn't quite ignite. The movie rarely climbs out of the chuckle zone, except for a few times when Jim Carrey is on screen as Burt and Anton's rival, a stringy-haired, tattooed street magician who specializes in cable-TV stunts that represent the new era: He's like Criss Angel as a Zen pain freak. The gleam of madness in Carrey's eye finds a perfect home in this role, which has him upping the ante on how far he'll go (holding in his urine for 12 days, spending a night on hot coals), all as a way to bedazzle jaded audiences.
He beats Burt and Anton at their own game, and their act starts to fall apart. And so, in a way, does the movie. Instead of getting wilder, it turns earnest and mushy, as Burt, humbled by failure, starts performing at a retirement home, where he befriends Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the cranky magician whose VHS tape first inspired him as a kid. Burt Wonderstone has a real affection for the world of illusionists, a showbiz demimonde it treats with simultaneous snark and awe. Yet the movie itself is too cautious and unimaginative to bring off what a great magic trick or comedy should do: make us laugh out loud with surprise. B-