Movies face the same challenges as old flames who are looking for a second chance — we want to believe them, but they still have to prove it to us by acknowledging our doubts and helping us move past them. Science-fiction/fantasy movies engage our skepticism in order to connect with the audience. We need our doubts to be recognized in part so that we can relate to the characters on screen, and in part so that we can see those seeds of doubt squashed. If a smart-ass like Han Solo can come around to saying, “May the Force be with you,” then surely we can.

Comedies with a delusional character at their center need to work just as hard to build believability, but in the opposite way. We can tell right away that Ron Burgundy is a pompous ass. What we need to be convinced of is how he stays that way. Anchorman accomplishes this by surrounding Mr. Burgundy with a news team of equally deluded morons who both support and embody his lifestyle and twisted outlook on life. Consequently, this serves as the source of comedic tension, as well as the key to its narrative arc. It is only once we gain an understanding of a character’s flaws that we can appreciate his eventual maturation by the story's end. But it’s hard to poke fun at a delusional character when he’s the only one out of the loop, and it's even harder to root for him. Enter the primary flaw of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows its eponymous character, a once-great magician (Steve Carell) who plays the biggest venue in Vegas along with his childhood friend, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). After decades on the strip Burt's arrogance has smothered his passion for magic. He bickers with Anton and berates his assistants. He’s even grown tired of sleeping with whatever perky blonde he plucks from the audience during the show.

The problem is that Burt is the only character who has completely lost touch with reality. His assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde), looks on him with pity, and his employer (James Gandolfini) has lost all faith in him. Even Anton possesses some common sense and a drive to succeed; it is Anton who suggests they update their act to compete with Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), an eccentric street musician whose best tricks take the form of self-mutilation. Anton ultimately leaves Burt when Burt ruins what is supposed be their next great trick—camping out for a week in a plexiglass hotbox suspended above the Las Vegas Strip. The venue drops Burt soon thereafter and Jane quickly follows suit. And who can blame them?


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One of Steve Carell’s greatest strengths as an actor is his ability to convey earnestness. He sells heartbreak and insecurity so well that it's easy to forget how well he can be a moron: Michael Scott in The Office, Brick Tamland in Anchorman, even the caricature of himself on The Daily Show. Each of those roles pulled out Carell's inner fool by playing him off the likes of Rainn Wilson and Will Ferrell and Stephen Colbert. Without anyone to enable his absurd behavior, though, his version of Burt looks out of place on screen.

The second half of Wonderstone taps into Carell's great fallback of sincerity. Burt works his way up the ranks and lands a gig at a nursing home where he meets his childhood hero, the magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). Holloway helps Burt regain his love of magic, and what follows are the movie’s most entertaining scenes: montages of the two mastering sleight-of-hand tricks, making golf balls disappear and rolling quarters along their knuckles in front of cheering elderly crowds.

This uplifting second half saves Wonderstone from being a disaster, but the end product still lacks substance. With some more legwork up front it could have been a refreshing, inspiring comedy. Instead, Burt's redemption doesn't feel earned so much as overdue.

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