Goofy wigs are always a bad omen, especially when they're the centerpiece of a film. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone seems pitched by a really good wig-maker who thought it would be hysterical to plop ridiculous feathery rugs on Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, a post-grunge one on Jim Carrey, a scraggly old-man one on Alan Arkin, and an intentionally fake-looking one on Olivia Wilde.
Those wigs sure look funny. Too bad nothing else is.
Which is a bloody shame, given the premise of Carell (who plays Wonderstone) and Buscemi as ultra-corny, velvet-leotarded Vegas magicians who engage in a war of one-upmanship with Carrey's Chris Angel-esque street magician. Carrey, on a show called Brain Rapist, pulls off stunts like sleeping on hot coals and not urinating for two weeks. The film shows signs of life as a look at how traditional showmanship suffers in an age of rapid-fire Internet trickery, with seasoned pros like Jay Mohr and James Gandolfini (in bad wigs) representing the old-school Vegas mentality as endangered.
Alas, the film makes the fatal mistake of insisting on audience investment in an unlikable character's redemption. Carell is a master of making viewers sympathize with brutishly inconsiderate characters, as evidenced by his weirdly tender suffering on The Office. In films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the surprisingly not-horrible Dan in Real Life, his sweet streak shines through even the most boorish veneer.
But Wonderstone is just a horrible human being: sexist, racist, rapey, cruel, egomaniacal, crude, selfish and destructive. Yet when his life hits the skids, we're asked to forget nearly all that came before. We're supposed to hope the asshole wins back the good-natured buddy he cast aside and score with the assistant (Wilde) he treated like a slave.
Leaps in goodwill could be forgiven if Wonderstone contained some real chuckles. Alas, pretty much everything falls flat after 20 minutes. Carrey comes out of the gate with a hilarious skewering of Angel, then turns into Jim Carrey. Buscemi does the sweet thing and falls down a lot. Corny magic is shown as corny. This is a film about magicians without a single trick up its sleeve, a flick that never pulls back the curtain or aspires to be anything more than a lazy-ass comedy where the wigs and sequins do the talking. But they sure are funny wigs.
Critic's Grade: D+
SEE IT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Cinema 21, Lloyd Center, Bridgeport, Division, Tigard, Oak Grove, Sandy, City Center, Mill Plain.