If you are going to Las Vegas, let me recommend you go to Bally’s Hotel and Casino to see the long-running Jubilee! show in the large theater adjacent to the gambling floor. This is the last big Vegas extravaganza with Bob Mackie costumes and seemingly a hundred or so topless showgirls averaging about six foot two in height.
I note this because the new movie comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” pretends to be set in Bally’s showroom. Or at least the show Burt (Steve Carrel) and his boyhood chum Anton (Steve Buscemi) have been doing for ten years is supposedly staged in that theater.
We see the two musicians as boys, learning to mystify by studying Rance Hanson’s magic kit. Hanson is played by Alan Arkin. The cast also includes James Gandolfini, Olivia “13” Wilde, Jim Carrey, and Jay Mohr, a talented bunch.
Once the story gets up to our time, Gandolfini plays Doug Munny, a sort of Steve Wynn hotel impresario who owns Bally’s and is opening his own place, called “Doug.” Having seen tapes of the street performances of a long-hair named Steve Gray, Munny fires Burt and Steve, who have obviously lost interest in repeating the show they’ve been doing for years.
They try to re-invent themselves by agreeing to stay in a Plexiglas-sided box suspended over The Fremont Street Experience. But the stunt fails, the magicians quarrel, and Anton goes off to deliver magic kits to the poor in southeast Asia.
Burt tries to soldier on, but finds there is little call for him as a performer. He also has a falling out with Jane, a former fan of his shows who worked for a time as his assistant. Finally he takes a job at a local rest home where he meets, no surprise, Hanson. The older magician diagnoses what has been wrong with Burt’s performances. The two agree to work at a kid’s birthday party.
There the rejuvenated Burt is aced out during a trick duel forced on him by Gray. Our hero can only save his ego by performing a winning act at the upcoming Showcase Munny is running to help him pick the headliner for the new hotel.
But wait a minute. What became of Hanson and Anton? Well, the former had a stroke, and the film’s funniest moment is Arkin try to use a little magic to cover his exit from the hospital. And Anton has discovered that the starving don’t want to learn to do magic. They want to smoke a drug that makes them pass out for a short period.
Jane asks Anton and Burt what tricks they have that they can wow the Showcase audience with. The only one left in their notebook involves making the audience disappear. Can they manage that now?
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” satirizes stagy magic shows, like guest star David Copperfield’s, and shock magic of the sort Criss Angel used to film for the TV show “Mindfreak.” Pretty easy targets, wouldn’t you say? This is the sort of comedy film that relies almost as much on sentimentality as it does on jokes. I found myself non-plused by the heart-rending and less interested any time Arkin wasn’t on the screen. But the movie does have its moments, and it is mildly diverting.
I just liked the amazon showgirls in the thirty-pound feathered headdresses better. And the Jubilee! show, like much of Las Vegas, is already every bit as much a museum piece as are the magicians’ costumes and tricks demonstrated in this oddly-edited movie. But, then, every time we see a magic show we’re looking at something outside of the zeitgeist, don’t you think?