In magic, things are never what they appear to be. However, when the credits roll at the end of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and you see that the film's story is credited to four different writers, you realize exactly how the misfire you just watched came to be.
Steve Carell stars as the title character, a jaded star on the Vegas strip who has played to sold-out crowds for more than a decade. He's grown bored with his act and his BFF-since-childhood/magic partner Anton (Steve Buscemi). They snipe at each other between illusions, and soon they face both dwindling ticket sales and competition from Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a Criss Angel/David Blaine type with a knack for outlandish street magic, grueling feats of endurance (for one stunt, he holds his urine for nearly two weeks), and a hit TV show called Brain Rape. When Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), the head of the casino Burt and Anton have called home for ten years, decides to open a new location, he sets up a talent contest with the winner getting a giant new contract.
There are two distinct threads running through the movie. Most of the time, it's an obviously plotted tale about a friendship that goes through a rough patch. Carell and Buscemi are both inherently likable performers, but their characters are underwritten and the bond between them seems built on nothing more than the need to have a plot; there's no genuine investment in the outcome of their conflict. Burt is a smarmy, spoiled brat -- he brags endlessly about owning the biggest bed in Vegas -- and Carell is a confident enough as an actor to let the audience dislike him. The problem is that the character hasn't been given enough good traits to forge an emotional connection with viewers.
The other major plot has to do with Burt's escalating feud with Steve Gray, and here you wish the movie went for broke. Gray's first scene, in which he performs a dementedly graphic card trick, is the film's best, in part because it's the only time the screenplay figures out how to take the theatricality of magicians to a ridiculous extreme instead of just poking fun at the banal aspects of their tightly constructed stage shows. Had the movie been nothing but the back-and-forth of these two egomaniacs trying to top each other, the result could have been a pointed satire of fame.
The cast are uniformly appealing. In addition to Carell playing a pompous ass, Carrey goes all out in a way he hasn't for a very long time. There are glimpses of the old In Living Color-era Carrey here, but instead of a manic-aggressive energy, he comes at us with the focus of a seasoned performer. Speaking of seasoned performers, Alan Arkin appears as a retired magician who happens to be Burt's role model, and he gives his lines the familiar crankiness that got him an Oscar nomination for Argo. James Gandolfini lands every one of his gags -- it's a pleasure to see him play someone so ludicrous -- and Olivia Wilde is arguably the prettiest magician's assistant in the history of prestidigitation.
If only they all had better material to work with. There are laughs peppered throughout The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but director Don Scardino, a TV veteran who helmed numerous episodes of 30 Rock, can't get past the episodic structure he's used to, and the script never forces him out of his comfort zone. The characters get little laughs in most of the scenes, but in the larger sense it never seems like there's anything at stake. Like the city these magicians call home, the movie is pure chintzy surface with nothing real at the center of it.