Steve Carell's gift is for men who might drown in their own obliviousness. Like his Daily Show reporter, or The Office's Michael Scott, his forty-year-old virgin lived in terror that someone might catch on to the fact that he knows nothing about subjects he purports to have mastered. When his virgin apes just-us-guys talk and insists that breasts feel like bags of sand, our laughter isn't just at his absurd cluelessness. It's at Carell the performer's ability to lay bare our near-universal impulse to lie to cover up our own ignorance, at the way we're implicated in this human failing.
Carell again plays oblivious in the fitfully inspired magician comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but he doesn't play human. As the magician of the title, he's a dick David Copperfield on the decline, a third-rate casino act done up in chintzy velvet and grinding through the same tricks in the same show he's been doing for a decade. It's amusing that Carell left The Office in part to do a movie about the kind of guy who would never leave The Office; what's less amusing is that Wonderstone — unlike that virgin — has absolutely no idea that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. That means we never get those moments of broad but recognizable behavior. Instead, Wonderstone is all jackass, cruel and dumb, capable only of the most selfish and least inventive responses, which stiffs the several long scenes of him sexually harassing poor Olivia Wilde (as Wonderstone's assistant) or berating Steve Buscemi (as Wonderstone's bickering partner in magic). It's a Will Ferrell-style part played by an actor lacking abandon.
At the start of the movie, Wonderstone stands near the top of his magician world. Thanks to hubris and bad investments, he loses everything and then has to claw back. This being a mainstream Hollywood comedy, there's also a redemptive arc even more rote than the soundtrack cues, which include Us3's "Cantaloop" and C+C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" with no apparent irony.
Inevitably, Wonderstone rediscovers the spirit of his childhood, finds something to believe in, and even gets the girl he's been awful to since the first reel, a development we're presumably meant to applaud. All this blooming-into-a-better-person stuff gives Carell the chance to return to the mode of several of his more serious comedies, one also often aspired to by Robin Williams, and one that isn't all that human, either: that of the wounded man who heals himself by embracing naif-ishness. It's no less alienating than his abusive-magician routine.
Outside a well-scripted magician sex scene and some charming late-in-the-movie stage patter, Carell is never funny and human in the same moment. That's especially disappointing considering that there's much here for audiences to laugh at. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (seen briefly as a paramedic) have been generous in the crafting of ridiculous magic acts, several of which become ace comic set pieces. Buscemi is antsy yet beatific as the smarter, less charismatic Roy to Carell's Siegfried.
The supporting cast is all first-rate. Wilde is asked to do nothing more than be pretty and earnest and put-upon, but Jim Carrey turns up as a controlled grotesque, a self-abusing "magician" whose act is all about violations of his own body. Also strong is James Gandolfini, as a casino owner with no time for bullshit; he's the only character in the movie who reacts to anyone else the way that a person actually might.