How long has it been since we actually laughed at Jim Carrey in a movie? I mean, really laughed? He did have a couple of moments during the mostly forgettable Yes Man back in 2008, and he’ll always have our hearts for his (mostly serious) turn in the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But it’s been a decade or so since he gave us more than a mild chuckle: 2003’s Bruce Almighty was merely okay, but if it opened today it would probably feel like a triumphant return to form. So, if nothing else, the new dueling-magicians flick The Incredible Burt Wonderstone provides a welcome opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with a genuinely funny Jim Carrey. I won’t lie: It felt like reuniting with an old friend.
The movie itself is another matter. It starts off with a flashback to young Burt, a suburban latchkey kid bullied remorselessly at school, discovering the wonders of a do-it-yourself magic kit. (“Everybody loves a magician … and they’ll love you, too,” it not-so-subtly promises.) He soon enlists fellow loner-nerd Anthony as his sidekick, and the two quickly become inseparable and grow up to become a popular magic act, the Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, played by, respectively, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. But by the time the film settles into its story, they’re on the verge of has-been-dom: Regaling ever-dwindling crowds with old-fashioned, vaguely sexist spectacle, they’ve turned their childhood fantasies into a tired Vegas routine. (One of their tricks involves a faux-high-school pantomime about Burt stealing a jock’s girlfriend.)
Trouble shows up soon in the form of fearless, long-haired street magician Steve Gray (Carrey), a ridiculous David Blaine type who likes to do stunts and has a Criss Angel Mindfreak–like cable show called Steve Gray: Brain Rapist. Gray will do anything — sleep on a bed of hot coals, not pee for a week, drill a hole through his skull, etc. — to get a rise out of his audience. And it works, because Burt and Anton find themselves trying to make their act more like the popular Gray’s, with disastrous consequences.
Let’s just cut to the chase: Carrey, whose looks have gone from trickster-next-door to something more menacing, alien, and angular, is perfectly matched to the part. This is a creepier incarnation of the Overconfident Dimwit role he perfected during his heyday. It helps that the gags themselves are funny, but he’s so gloriously driven (to rape our brains, presumably) that we’d laugh at him even if they weren’t.
Not so with Carell, however, who brings both the pace and the temperature down pretty much every time the film cuts to the main story line. Burt’s journey from obnoxious showbiz veteran (an early scene where he halfheartedly seduces a groupie is more sad than funny) to humble comeback story never really registers: The part calls for gathering desperation, but Carell, whose very stock-in-trade used to be his vulnerability, can only muster whinier variations to his jaded loser shtick. Compare that to the breathless anxiety Will Ferrell brought to similar fallen-superstar parts in Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory.
By the end of the film, when Burt is supposed to get the girl and prove himself to be a changed, freshly self-aware man, we may find ourselves unconvinced. Luckily, we may also not notice, because there are still a lot of laughs in this movie. But they’re courtesy of someone else: The true comeback story in this fictional comeback story doesn’t belong to a character named Burt Wonderstone, but to an actor named Jim Carrey.