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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Is The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a redemption tale or a raucous comedy?
Sincerity vs. hilarity
Friends turned illusionists.
Friends turned illusionists.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone offers a useful humor principle: Nothing can ruin a comedy faster than changing what the audience is supposed to laugh at. Unfortunately, the movie hasn't fully absorbed this lesson.

Wonderstone seems to have a firm grasp on the concept in its opening shot. A boy named Weinzelstein runs in slow motion, nostalgic music swelling in the background as a bully chases him. He finds his way home for a solitary birthday party where his sole present is an instructional video by magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The boy and his best friend, Anthony, grow up to be legendary Las Vegas illusionists Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), but 10 years into their run at Bally's casino, they're just going through the motions. As the camera follows the narcissistic Wonderstone into his lavish suite, screenwriters Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses) seem to be setting up a rise-fall-rise tale like Anchorman.

There are several on-target gags during the first hour. After a fight with Marvelton, Wonderstone adapts a tag-team illusion for a solo act, but his "switcheroo" trick fails because there's no one to switch places with. The biggest kick comes when Jim Carrey shows up as Steve Gray, an extreme illusionist whose cutting-edge image threatens Wonderstone's old-school ways. You'll want to see an ultimate showdown of self-absorbed showmanship, because silliness is at the center of this story. Until the story goes somewhere else, that is.

When Wonderstone loses his casino gig, the film becomes a redemption story. While working at an assisted-living facility, he meets a cynical, retired Holloway and tries to rediscover his love of magic. There are flashes of the seriocomic actor who has been so good in movies like Dan in Real Life, but Wonderstone's screenplay makes it hard to truly care about Carell's character. The wacky situations matter most. When Wonderstone and Gray get their magical face-off, Carrey acts in a broad satire while Carell tries to seem sincere.

The movie closes with a hilarious, step-by-step look at how Wonderstone and Marvelton pull off their new "disappearing audience" illusion. It's a terrific collection of visual gags that yanks the film back into raucous comedy territory. This bit feels like the Wonderstone that should have been. But in trying to show that the wounded, lonely Weinzelstein is beneath the jaded, spray-tanned Wonderstone, the filmmakers miss the opportunity to make the audience laugh harder and more often. Laughing at Wonderstone is more fun than being expected to laugh with him.

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