1. Steve Carell, leading man, is a lot funnier when he's not trying to be funny. He tends to work better in supporting straight comedy roles (most famously Anchorman, but also Bruce Almighty and even Bewitched) than as the lead (Dinner For Schmucks, Get Smart). His sweet spot as a leading man is basically the Tom Hanks role; he exudes a fundamental decency and generosity that can center and ground a story. Tad Friend's wonderful New Yorker story about Carell based this in his improv past; it argued that training allowed other actors to bounce off him, to let them have the spotlight and work along with them. Carell has always been someone you cheer for, but now that he's older, he's not always someone who makes you laugh.
2. This is the fundamental miscalculation of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a surprisingly timid comedy that has a ton of talent and a terrific concept behind it, but never quite musters up the energy to do much with either. It starts Carell as the eponymous Wonderstone, a famous Vegas magician (along with his longtime best friend partner Anton Marvelton, played by Steve Buscemi) who discovers he has been made irrelevant by the emergence of a new kind of "street art" magician, the kind who spends the night lying on hot coals or goes four days without urinating. (Jim Carrey, in what's essentially an extended cameo, plays him part David Blaine, part Criss Angel.) Wonderstone, of course, loses everything and has to get it all back by rediscovering—say it all together now—Why He Fell In Love With Magic In The First Place.
3. The movie never quite figures out if it's going to be a go-for-broke, non-stop-gag comedy in the Anchorman vein or a warm-hearted sincere character comedy like, say, The 40-Year Old Virgin, so it ends up being a lot of neither. A lot of this is, sad to say, thanks to Carell, who seems unsure if he should be playing a real person or a caricature. On one hand, he invests considerable serious good cheer in Wonderstone; he wants us to care about this guy. On the other hand, the script portrays him as a clueless jackass who is so accustomed to his Vegas hotel lifestyle that he leaves the dishes outside the front door of an apartment. Which is it? The movie keeps hedging about what type of comedy it is, careening from the warmth of Alan Arkin's performance as a retired magician learning to love the craft again to the prancing set pieces of Carrey and the cartoonish, aggressively-laugh-free dopiness of Buscemi. (I love Mr. Pink as much as anybody, but Buscemi is never as funny in these comedy roles as you want him to be.) Carell keeps trying to center the movie in a real place, but the script keeps cutting his knees out from under him by portraying him as a buffoon.
4. Thus, we're left with a lot of silly jokes about Vegas performers—including tired gags about the guy whose act features his tigers continuously mauling him—and Carell alternately turning on the good-guy charm and mugging for the camera. Some of the jokes still land, including a funny-sad routine in which Wonderstone tries to do his two-person act solo, but the movie's so all over the place that it never stops anywhere to settle. Olivia Wilde has some nice moments as a woman who grew up worshipping Wonderstone and has dreams of being a magician herself, but the movie ultimately just sells her out and turns her into the love interest. The more I think about it, the more I think the movie probably should have just been about her.
5. You get a sense of what the movie could have been during a scene that runs over the closing credits, which is never a good sign. Without spoiling it, let's just say that it shows, in unsparing and hilarious detail, just how much trouble Wonderstone and his crew had to go through to pull off their signature trick. In Chris Jones' Esquire profile of magician Teller, he writes about how "the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical." The movie's close brings this point to its logical conclusion. It's a great joke in a movie that needs more of them. If the rest of the movie had put much thought into its characters as it did into that final scene, we'd have really had something.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.