If there were an Oscar for best bad hair, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” would be a lock. In this comedy about professional magicians and Vegas high-rollers, there isn’t a male cast member who doesn’t have something absurdly tragic happening on top of his head. Star Steve Carell, as the preening stud illusionist of the title, sports a fetching Siegfried-and-Roy coif, while Jim Carrey, as his rival, goes trailer-park heavy-metal. Alan Arkin appears to have had a tar pit shellacked to his scalp, and Steve Buscemi labors under what looks like a small terrier in mid-sneeze. Even James Gandolfini, as a cheerfully crass casino magnate, wears a blond toupee that makes him look like the biggest hood ornament in town.
The hair is funny, in part, because not much else is. “Burt Wonderstone” is a lazy, underwritten imitation Will Ferrell movie — an “Anchorman” rip about a fatuous boob who gets humbled and becomes a sincere, slightly less fatuous boob in time for the end credits. But you watch the movie in a happy state of expectation anyway, because the concept’s so rich and just enough of it makes it onto the screen, along with some fine character comedians.
Who hasn’t looked at big-name magicians — like David Copperfield, who cameos as himself here — and seen a childhood geek ecstatic to have found a way to get paid for it? A Barry Manilow with rabbits. “Burt Wonderstone” establishes that emotional terrain with a prologue in which two bullied kids (Mason Cook and Luke Vanek) team up as partners in sleight of hand, and a few decades later we find them headlining Bally’s as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton (Buscemi).
They’ve done Carson, they’ve conquered the Strip, and their show is a brazenly clueless display of high Vegas kitsch, cued to Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra.” But Wonderstone has become a diva and a jerk, with a bed that “comfortably sleeps two dozen” and a rotating crew of assistants and conquests. The appearance of Steve Gray (Carrey), a gonzo cable-TV “street magician” whose stunts are spectacular exercises in escalating masochism, spells the end of Burt and Anton’s old-school popularity.
So it’s David Copperfield versus David Blaine, more or less, a solid comic notion that falls surprisingly flat. Carrey, whose role is little more than an extra special guest appearance, represents the film’s approach: Set up a comic situation and then let the cast wing it. Aside from one freakishly effective scene in which Gray somehow pulls a playing card out of his cheek, Carrey is encouraged by director Dan Scardino to be as loud and weird as possible. And he’s good at it. He’s just not very funny.
It’s the comic actors, rather than the comedians, who bring the focus. Arkin, as a wily old mentor Burt rediscovers in an old-age home, is a dry joy, as usual, and Buscemi turns his stock sidekick part into something rather sweet, especially when Anton goes to the Far East to deliver magic kits to starving children. Gandolfini’s killer bonhomie is as big as the Palace itself. Even Olivia Wilde, in the token role of Burt’s assistant/love interest, gives her lines an intelligent snap.
Because Carell is both a comedian and a dramatic actor, he gets his signals crossed. He makes Burt genuinely hateful at times, which is at least interesting, and when the character periodically finds himself at his lowest, he lets out a strangled whimper that’s actually touching. Carell’s giving away the trick — that inside Burt Wonderstone is a terrified kid.
After that it’s back to the slapstick, dud jokes, and general structural flabbiness. As the end credits roll, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” finally rises to comic inspiration when the secret behind the hero’s climactic Disappearing Audience Trick is revealed. By then it’s too late — we’ve already vanished.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.