Given the level of talent involved, this is especially disappointing. Director Don Scardino is fresh off of “30 Rock.” Steve Carell can do (almost) no wrong in my book. Steve Buscemi is one of the greatest characters since the fall of the studio system. And the cast also includes Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Jim Carrey and James Gandolfini.
The story is a Vegas hybrid of the arrogant-Hollywood-prima-donna-falls-from-grace scenario — lovingly satirized in “The Artist” — with “The Sunshine Boys.” Wonderstone (Carell) and partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been best friends since grade school, when their mutual fascination with stage magic helped rescue them from extreme geek victimhood.
Over the course of 20 years, they've not only achieved the pinnacle of success, they're also ready to tumble off of it. They've been together too long; they constantly quarrel, Burt being clearly more responsible for their troubles than Anton. When Burt breaks up the act, he discovers that he's broke, which is not surprising, except to Burt, given his lavish and tacky lifestyle. (“I have the biggest bed in Las Vegas! It can sleep 24 adults!”) And so the rude, arrogant, coldly womanizing star finds himself living in the Shady Palms Motel and entertaining at an old folks' home.
One of the residents turns out to be Burt and Anton's original inspiration, Rance Holloway (Arkin, shown in flashback a few times in remarkable young-man makeup). Arkin comes off better than the stars, managing to squeeze a few good moments from a poorly written part. But the performer who comes off best overall is Carrey, who is perfect in his supporting role as ambitious web magician Steve Gray. Gray is basically a masochist/magician whose tricks include holding his urine for 12 days and sleeping on a bed of hot coals.
The central problem here — besides the familiarity of the whole setup — is the casting of Carell. Carell is not an obvious leading man, so his rise to that status — from “The Daily Show” to “The Office” to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — has been a surprise. In most of his film roles, he's played someone mentally, psychologically or socially defective — stupid, painfully innocent, suicidally depressed or unimaginably insensitive. But I've never seen him play someone so thoroughly awful as Burt Wonderstone. Let me add that he is totally convincing as relatively normal people in films like “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
Burt is not just an arrogant idiot, he's such a terrible human being for the first third of the story that it's hard to care about him for the rest. To make things worse, if you blink, you could miss his redemption — and you might even miss it without blinking. Sure, it's supposed to be triggered by the combination of humiliation and rediscovering his inspirational roots, but the process is simply not there. His trajectory takes him invisibly from awful to redeemed.
Even with some laughs and a few good performances, this remains a terrible waste.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).