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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' not quite magical

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Carell, Carrey headline good-not-great comedy

Any profession that gave us such pop culture touchstones as David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy is ripe for satire. The world of the Las Vegas magician is one that rarely gets the Hollywood treatment, despite the fact that it is clearly asking for it.

But longtime television director Don Scardino has tackled this high-pressure world of excitement and illusion with the new film 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.' Unfortunately, this star-driven comedy succumbs to the temptation of the formulaic, sacrificing some of the potential impact in the name of the familiar. The end result is a decent studio comedy that could have been ever so much more.

Steve Carell ('Hope Springs') is Burt Wonderstone, a legendary magician who has been performing his act on the Las Vegas stage for well over a decade. Alongside his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, TV's 'Boardwalk Empire'), he has been performing his 'Burt and Anton: A Magical Friendship' each and every day for the past 10 years.

However, the partnership between the two has soured they have lost sight of what made their act so engaging in the first place. Anton quits, leaving Burt to try and carry on as a solo act something his arrogance leaves him ill-prepared for, despite the best efforts of assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde, 'People Like Us').

Complicating matters is the emergence of new guerrilla magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins'), a street magician whose 'tricks' are more sadomasochistic self-torture than prestidigitation. However, Gray and his cable show have captured the popular imagination.

This leads casino honcho Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, 'Zero Dark Thirty') who is on a quest for the next big thing to pull the plug on Burt's show. Before long, Burt finds himself knocked down by life, living in a cheap motel and performing at a retirement home to make ends meet. 

But when Munny decides to put on a showcase to determine the signature show of his new casino, a newly-humbled Burt might just be able to outdo even the outrageous antics of Steve Gray with a little help from his friends.

One of the things that Carell does best is bring a realistic sensibility to even the most absurd of characters. He does accomplish that here, although the script has a tendency to go for the easy laugh rather than let him dig deep. Buscemi is typically excellent as the put-upon Anton, though the role isn't a particular stretch for him. And Wilde is surprisingly good, holding her own alongside some major screen talents. Gandolfini and Alan Arkin (as Burt's magical idol) offer some great moments in supporting roles.

But it's Jim Carrey who really grabs hold of this film when he's on screen. There's an undeniable darkness to Carrey that we see too rarely, and while it is tempered by some fairly typical rubbery mugging, Carrey's Steve Gray has some of that edge. Very few people commit to a bit quite like he does and it really works here.

All that said, 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' isn't anything new. There are moments when you see what the movie could have been the world of magic and magicians is fertile ground for comedy but for the most part, it all comes together rather formulaically. Most of what happens is kind of predictable; the mighty is fallen, is usurped by an upstart, learns a lesson and gets a chance at redemption. Pretty paint-by-numbers, really.

Predictability aside, though, there are some big laughs to be found here. Carell and Buscemi have great chemistry and Carrey induces a number of squirm-in-your-seat moments that are wildly funny. Still, the characters are mostly caricature; that lack of depth is frustrating, because with this cast and this concept, there's a great movie to be had.

But 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' isn't quite it. This is an OK-not-great comedy that, while entertaining enough, never quite reaches the heights to which it should have aspired.

3 out of 5

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