A welcomed wonder
When do we start considering good PG-13 comedies great because they are so rare? Neither critics nor movie fans seem to like much in the non-animated PG-13 comedy genre, with no such film gracing the domestic box office top 20 the last two years. The last major comedy to float critics’ boat (using site Rottentomatoes.com rating of 80% fresh as a standard) was probably 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer.” To paraphrase comic Steve Martin, “comedy is not pretty,” and when it comes to movies, they rarely please everyone.
So along comes a film like “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” and if you thought that featuring three excellent comic actors like Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey would help the film considerably – you’d be right. The comedy is predictably broad occasionally but also wonderfully on point most of the time, and does what all great comedies must do: it keeps the laughs coming without wearing out its good ideas by repeating them ad nauseum.
This “Anchorman” meets “Step Brothers” narrative has Burt and Anton, two picked-on middle school kids in 1982 bonding over the magic of their idol Rance Holloway (a scene-stealing Alan Arkin, consistently good and never insincere). Flash forward to the present and Burt (Carell) and Anton (Buscemi) are headliners at Bally’s Las Vegas, performing the kind of kitschy illusion show that Siegfried and Roy would admire.
Success has made Burt an arrogant womanizer, alienating his partner and friend, and gets him fired by the casino boss (James Gandolfini). He winds up mooching off his recently hired assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), and it’s good to see a strong female character that doesn’t become easily objectified by a sleazy male lead.
After being newly inspired by his idol (during some funny and poignant scenes at a nursing home), Burt decides to patch up things with Anton. However, the two must revamp their act because of the popularity of newer, edgier magic like that of Steve Grey, “The Brain Rapist,” portrayed with wild-eyed abandon and awesome absurdity by Jim Carrey. Carrey’s turn as a Criss Angel/David Blaine street illusionist (willing to scar himself or lie on hot coals to prove his prowess) marks a return of sorts for the sinewy comedian, and spices up the movie just in the nick of time.
As for Carell, his likeability may work against him during his jerk phase, but he still has a guileless nature surpassed only perhaps by Will Ferrell, and he doesn’t have to carry the film. Veteran TV director Don Scardino (“30 Rock”) does a good job of keeping the humor quick-paced (his small screen experience obviously helps here) and he finds the right place to let Carrey do his thing without overdoing it.
Normally, this type of comedy would be a fun, forgettable ride. But these days, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” feels like a welcomed wonder.
Rated “PG-13” for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug related incident and language.