Like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's legendary assessment of pornography, funny is an "I know it when I see it" proposition. Often, nothing kills a joke faster than analyzing it.
But The Incredible Burt Wonderstone offers a useful teaching moment in comedy principles. One is that nothing throws an audience from its enjoyment of a comedy faster than shifting what they're supposed to be laughing at.
Wonderstone has a firm grasp on this concept from its opening shot, as a boy named Weinzelstein runs in slow motion, with sweeping nostalgic music swelling in the background. But he's not happy. He's being pursued by a bully, running home for a solitary birthday where his sole present is a magic kit and instructional video by magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin).
This boy and his childhood 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, they're just going through the motions. As we glimpse the narcissistic Burt in his lavish suite, screenwriters Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses) seem to be setting up a goofy rise-and-fall-and-re-rise tale that would make Wonderstone the Anchorman of the magic world.
The first hour's gags are erratic, but plenty are on target. The biggest kick comes when Jim Carrey shows up as Steve Gray, a Criss Angel-esque extreme illusionist whose cutting-edge image threatens Burt's old-school ways, and whose stunts include holding his pee until a doctor warns "he now has more urine than blood." We want a chance to see that ultimate showdown of self-absorbed showmanship, because the silliness is the center of this story.
Until, that is, the story goes somewhere else. When Burt loses his casino gig and hits rock bottom, Wonderstone shifts into a more sincere redemption story. Working in an assisted-living facility where he meets a cynical, now-retired Rance Holloway, Burt tries to rediscover his love of magic, as well as make himself worthy of the affections of Jane (Olivia Wilde).
In bits in flashes, we see Carell the talented seriocomic actor, but the screenplay hasn't given his character the foundation for anything beyond wacky situations to matter to us. When Burt and Steve Gray do get their magical face-off, it's one in which Jim Carrey is still acting in a broad satire, but Carell is trying to be sincere about how far Burt has fallen.
Wonderstone closes with a terrific collection of purely visual gags that yanks the movie back into the raucous comedy promised by the earlier tone. The ending feels like the version of Wonderstone this always should have been, without the half-hearted attempt at the equivalent of giving Ron Burgundy real heart and soul beneath his bravado.
The filmmakers here toss us scraps to convince us that beneath the spray-tan of the jaded Burt Wonderstone is the wounded, lonely Burt Weinzelstein, and in so doing miss the opportunity simply to make us laugh more often. It's always better when we're laughing at Burt Wonderstone than when we're expected to laugh, and feel, with him.