Film release schedules are awfully predictable. In summer, brainless blockbusters boasting superheroes, explosions, aliens, and other pyrotechnics hit the big screen. Between Halloween and Christmas Day, studios pull out their big guns to vie for both awards at the Golden Globes and the Oscars and ticket sales during the holidays. During January and February, cinematic duds get to shine—gratuitously violent and uneven films, low-budget horror movies and bad romances.
But March and April are the awkward months, standing between the junk and the dog day fare. And the "magical" comedy The Incredible World of Burt Wonderstone and the 3-D animated adventure The Croods are good examples of what Hollywood gives us this time of year: films that are too polished for January or February, too humdrum for the summer, and too hackneyed for awards season.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the story of two partner magicians, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), whose careers and life-long friendship end when edgy street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and his cable TV program "Brain Raped" hit the scene. But the film revels in predictability and never achieves the comedy it should, given its hilarious cast and promising premise. The viewer might suspect the folks at Warner Bros. planned to put out in the summer, thinking it would sell like a Will Ferrell comedies.
Despite its disappointingly literal setup—the straightforward humor, the trite romance between Wonderstone and his assistant (Olivia Wilde)—the film's few subtleties work. In a shot that highlights the new casino of Doug Munny (Marvelton and Wonderstone's billionaire boss, played by an on-point James Gandolfini), the camera pans over the fancy building and the casino's signage appears, boasting the name "Doug Casino" beside an image of Doug dancing. It's a quick, understated moment that pokes fun at the megalomania of casino moguls.
Wonderstone also gives Jim Carrey an opportunity to revive his comedy career. As the ridiculous, over-the-top, Criss Angel-esque Steve Gray, Carrey outshines both Carell and Buscemi. He resurrects his outlandish 1990s self, particularly the freakish facial expressions for which he became labeled "the man of a thousand faces."
Carrey's bizarre stunts (that Carrell's Wonderstone claims aren't magic) are most hilarious of all: he cuts his face open with a knife and pulls out a card; he sleeps overnight on hot coals. Obviously spoofing the popular street magic of today, made famous by Angel and David Blaine, these stunts are the film at it its smartest, but they narrowly miss reaching into the wits of satire to provide a commentary on state of the industry.
Yet it would be a reach to call the film satirical. Wonderstone's cleverness is secondary, if not tertiary, to Wonderstone himself. His story is trite—guy gains success, guy becomes proud and changes, guy loses success, guy finds redemption, guy regains success, all slathered over a sappy subplot involving guy and girl. But the problem isn't necessarily the film's formulaic nature as much its failure to do its formula right. The plot coasts through the motions, refusing to earn its points, particularly Wonderstone's abrupt transformation from jerk to hero, catapulted by work at a nursing home and a friendship with his inspiration, former magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).