From left, Steve Buscemi as Anton Marvelton and Steve Carell...

From left, Steve Buscemi as Anton Marvelton and Steve Carell as Burt Wonderstone in New Line Cinema's comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Credit: New Line Cinema

Magic and movies, two different ways of fooling an audience, share a few basic rules, and here is one of them: Never let them see you trying. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," a promising movie with all the makings of comedy magic, fumbles so badly that you can almost make out the flop-sweat on its brow.

Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi play Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, childhood friends who have grown up to become the powdered, pomaded headliners at Bally's in Las Vegas. (Buscemi's coif, a platinum-blond horror, is the best joke in the movie.) They're a big-prop act, in keeping with Burt's inflated ego, but their ticket sales are shrinking. The reason is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a street magician with the Goth wardrobe of Criss Angel and the mundane ideas of David Blaine. His dark reality show, "Steve Gray: Brain Rapist," is edging out old-school glitz.

The stress leads Burt and Anton to split, and here is where "Burt Wonderstone" begins flying apart like a fumbled pack of cards. While Gray wins over Bally's owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), Burt rediscovers the true meaning of magic with his childhood idol, Rance Holloway (a welcome Alan Arkin). Can a humbled Burt reteam with Anton to reclaim their top spot? Will their former assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), realize her own magic-act ambitions?

The scattered script, a four-writer effort, is juggled adeptly by director Don Scardino (NBC's "30 Rock"), but it's a lost cause. We're told that Gray is a conniving charlatan, but Carrey plays him as a harmless fool -- which is it? As for our two heroes, why are we rooting for the bloated Vegas hams over the street rebel? And what is the true meaning of magic, anyway? A glancing line about "childhood" and "wonder" doesn't cut it.

In the end, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is that most disheartening sight, a botched illusion.

PLOT An old-school Vegas magician crosses wands with a mysterious newcomer. RATING PG-13 (sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)

CAST Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde


BOTTOM LINE Man, what a cast! This could have been comedy magic if the story and the jokes hadn't vanished into thin air.


Busy movie year for Steve Carell

Steve Carell will appear in four more movies in 2013:

DESPICABLE ME 2 The animated sequel in which Carell reprises his character of Gru, a not-so-evil villain who adopts three girls. (July 3)

THE WAY, WAY BACK Directed by "The Descendants" co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, this is a coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old boy whose mom's new jerky boyfriend is played by Carell. (July 5).

FOXCATCHER His heaviest role yet -- as a mentally ill multimillionaire, John du Pont, who kills an Olympic wrestler -- from "Moneyball" and "Capote" director Bennett Miller. (Late 2013)

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND CONTINUES At the other end of the spectrum is Second City veteran and writer-director Adam McKay's sequel, in which Carell returns as dunderheaded meteorologist Brick Tamland. (Dec. 20).

-- Chicago Tribune

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