Everyone on screen seems to be having a blast, but this story of rival magicians in Las Vegas is not as much fun for the audience. It wants to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but there’s really nothing there.
Steve Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, who fell in love with doing magic tricks when he was a bullied kid. His only friend was Anton (Steve Buscemi) who also loved magic, and they developed an act together that led to a very successful run at a Las Vegas hotel owned by Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, nicely showing the thuggishness under the veneer of geniality). They were headliners. They had their own theater. And they had a series of beautiful assistants. All were given the same blonde wig and all were called Nicole. The most recent Nicole is Jane (Olivia Wilde).
But the act has gotten stale. Burt has 70’s hair and is so slick with spray tan it may require slight of hand to keep from sliding out of his clothes. As for the act, Burt is just phoning it in, waiting for his next empty sexual encounter. He seems more excited by having the biggest bed in Vegas than by what goes on in it. And audiences are excited by a new street performer named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) known as “The Brain Rapist.” What he does is not magic. He does a series of dangerous stunts, most of which involves some form of mortification of the flesh. That card an audience member selected from the deck? He will slice his cheek open to pull it out, covered in blood but still bearing the name scrawled on it with a Sharpie. He doesn’t just walk across hot coals; he spends the night on them, barbecuing himself. “They’re calling him the future of magic,” Munny says.
Burt ends up alone and broke, with no place to live and “in need of rabbit food and birdseed.” Finding the magic again will require him to break through the years of numbness and self-involvement.
There are a skit’s worth of good moments, mostly about Burt’s arrogance and cluelessness. When Jane makes dinner for him in her apartment, he offers to clean up, but thinks that means putting the dishes outside her front door. And Carell has a funny cry. Carrey captures the faux mysticism of “endurance artists” like David Blaine, but there’s no pay-off in seeing him suffer. Wilde is underused in the usual endlessly-patient-until-the-time-to-grow-up speech, especially frustrating given the film’s superficial claim to countering the marginalization of female characters. Even Alan Arkin cannot make interesting the old-time magician who first inspired the young Burt to learn to make things disappear. What this movie is missing is — magic.
Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situations, crude humor, drinking and drunkenness, scenes in a bar, a bully, comic drug use including drugs surreptitiously given to adults and children, strong language (many s-words, one f-word), and comic but dangerous stunts with graphic injuries.
Family discussion: What went wrong with the act and how did that relate to what went wrong with their friendship? What made Burt change his mind? To audiences really enjoy acts involving physical danger and mutilation? Which trick did you like the best and why?
If you like this, try: a terrific documentary about young magicians called “Make Believe”