There haven’t been many movies about magic and magicians made over the years, although the idea of seeing spectacular illusions on a big screen sounds like a pretty good one. We’ve had an inaccurate biopic on Houdini in the ’50s, the pretty good "Lord of Illusions" almost two decades ago and, very oddly, 2006 saw two quite good big-budget tales of prestidigitation: "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige."
My favorite entry in the genre remains the little-seen 1972 Brian De Palma gem "Get to Know Your Rabbit." Plot in a nutshell: Tommy Smothers is a stressed-out high-power executive who quits his job to go on the road as a tap-dancing magician, under the tutelage of Orson Welles. It’s on DVD. Find it!
This new one, a sweet and funny movie – with an edge – begins with young Burt, a loner who’s constantly at odds with bullies, being given a magic kit, and having his life transformed. He meets equally alone Anton, who’s also agog over magic, and as the years pass, they forge a friendship and then a magic act – Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton – to become the biggest draw in Vegas, dazzling audiences with old-time feats of illusion.
The problem is that, despite modifications in costumes and hair length, the act doesn’t change much. Burt and Anton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi) tire of doing it, and they tire of each other. Onstage, they’re a dynamic duo; offstage they hardly speak. Worse, because of Burt’s oversize ego and penchant for womanizing (he claims to have the biggest bed in Vegas), they can’t hold on to that magician’s necessity: a beautiful assistant, until Jane (Olivia Wilde) gets into the act.
The first part of the film is about the highs and lows of a longtime friendship. Time is also taken to present some terrific, glitzy theatrical performance. Carell and Buscemi have nailed the moves and the elegance that go along with successful magic acts. And longtime TV director Don Scardino, with a major assist from master magician David Copperfield (who cameos) have staged a flawless, one-shot, no-edits sequence called "The Hangman," which will leave viewers going, "Huh? What?"
The film’s edge comes courtesy of Jim Carrey, as Steve Gray, one of those newfangled danger-seeking Criss Angel-type street "magicians," who storms into town, determined to knock Burt and Anton off their pedestal with a whole different performance style. Everything turns into a case of rivalry, and Carrey, like the character he’s portraying, doesn’t even think of holding back.
But while things get kind of mean-spirited among the magicians, the film and the story keep their charm. Some of it comes from Wilde’s Jane yearning to be more than an assistant. A great deal of it comes from the introduction of Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), a former magician now (bad pun coming) completely disillusioned with the business, and living in a Vegas retirement home, whose face and name were on that magic set given to Burt all those years ago. Arkin, too, is in top form, showing off some nice comic timing and sleight of hand.
The best part is saved for the end, when a big trick is "revealed." Yes, if you stay long enough, you, too, can learn how to make an entire audience disappear.
Ed Symkus covers movies for GateHouse Media and has been reviewing films since 1975. His favorite movie (at least this week) is Terry Gilliam’s "Brazil."
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
Written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley; directed by Don Scardino
With Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin