Armed with his Mattel Magic Kit ("I loved it so much"), the very young Steve Carell would put on shows for other kids in his Acton, Mass., neighborhood. But, he admits, he wasn't a very good magician. "As soon as the show was over," he said, "I would tell everyone how all the tricks worked."
That's something he certainly can't do with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," which opens Friday and stars Carell, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde in a comedy about egos, illusions and plunging necklines (on Carell). In an effort to avoid too much computer enhancement, the movie used a lot of real tricks that came courtesy of its magic adviser, the celebrated David Copperfield. But it meant the actors had to sign a confidentiality agreement. "Honestly, that was the coolest part," Carell said. "You really felt you were part of that world."
Worlds collide in "Burt Wonderstone," which is set in the magic capital of the world -- Las Vegas -- a place where "you go big or go home," as Wilde put it, and which she said seemed "ripe" for the kind of parody they were out to do.
"And the more I learned more about Vegas magicians, the more I said, yeah, this place is right for comedy.
"And the idea of competition between magicians? They really do dislike each other."
An edgier replacement
They certainly do in "Burt Wonderstone." Burt (Carell) and his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), have been doing turn-away business on the Vegas Strip for years (any resemblance to Siegfried and Roy is purely intentional). But their act is getting old, the seats emptier and the relationship so acrimonious they keep losing assistants and have to draft a techie named Jane (Wilde) as a last-second substitute.
Despite Jane's contributions, the act is in free-fall, and the team's boss, hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), looks to replace them with someone edgier -- someone like Steve Gray (Carrey), a street "magician" and Internet sensation whose act is more about body-modification and pain than the kind of grand illusion in which Burt and Anton have specialized since they were boyhood friends.
While the idea of "extreme" magic reflects something going on in the culture at large, it wasn't something the filmmakers wanted "to hit with a sledgehammer," Carell said. But he hoped it wouldn't be lost on anyone, either.
"It's the idea that something that is classic and perhaps a bit well worn can casually be replaced by something that might not be considered art, but is new and shocking," he said. "I think that not only happens in magic but in the comedy world as well. I think there are lots of parallels, especially in television, in terms of what people are watching at this point. People are getting so much info on a daily basis, you need to do something ridiculous just to garner any attention."
The hidden-card trick
In one scene, Carrey -- looking remarkably buff, with a Mephistophelean beard and long, flowing locks -- does a hidden-card trick that involves Steve pulling the card out of a slice in his cheek. He also attempts to set the world record for staring, while having pepper spray shot into his eyes.
"It's an observation about what people want to watch, and what audiences seem to be demanding," Wilde said. "People want to be pushed to the brink, to see what they've never seen, It's interesting because it's happening in sports and in film as well -- horror, comedy. People want to be pushed to the edge. I wonder if that's a reaction to technology and what's available at our fingertips, or the demands made on entertainment that you pay for, because free content is so plentiful.
"If our film is a love letter to anything, it's to a classic style of entertainment."
Directed by TV's Don Scardino ("30 Rock," "2 Broke Girls") and written by six other people, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is less than a love letter to Vegas, or the performers who inspired the Burt and Anton characters. ("There were so many," Carell said with a laugh.)
To be a performer in Vegas, Wilde said, "both the performance and the personality have to be heightened, just the way the city's reality is heightened. Everyone's got to have more glitter, more sequins, more hair. I don't think I realized how spot-on our characters were till I came here. I mean, I really thought David Copperfield's show was just so funny."
Carell said he, too, discovered a few things about Vegas, perhaps the only city that can out-excess Hollywood.
"I found that I'm no gambler," he said. "It's not in my DNA, I'm not good at it and don't think I enjoy it. But what I really like are the restaurants. And the shows. My wife and kids came out this weekend, and we all had dinner and went to see 'O.' That's what worked for me.