There is something in Steve Carell that seems to resist his efforts to play a jerk. Case in point, his Michael Scott in The Office softened up inexorably over the years, while Ricky Gervais' U.K. version didn't.
This may be why Carell is the least hilarious thing about the fitfully-funny behind-the-curtain comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - a broad Vegas satire that falls somewhere between Anchorman and Dodgeball on the between-the-eyes funny scale.
Don't get me wrong. Carell carries his share of the comedy, and is believable as Wonderstone, an old-school Copperfield-esque title character whose casino-headlining life begins to unravel on three fronts. He loses his partner (Steve Buscemi) and his love of magic, just when a young "shock magician" (Jim Carrey, channeling Criss Angel) invades his turf.
But the laughs this movie coughs up are mainly courtesy of a solid supporting cast. A buff Carrey is a crazed egomaniac as "Brain Rapist" Steve Gray (shades of Angel's Mindfreak), doing insane stunts that are more Jim Rose Circus freakshow than magic (driving a nail into his head, lying on a bed of hot coals for a night).
Even the bit players pinch-hit some laughs - playing the minor-league barflies at a drinking establishment that caters to magicians. Jay Mohr, who is seldom funny in anything, punches above his weight as a pitiful lounge act called Rick The Implausible. And German comic actor Michael Herbig gets a bad-taste prize as a second-rate Siegfried/Roy, a "big cat magician" who shows up with a massive bandage on his neck. "The thing with big cats is, you leave them for 60 minutes and they forget who you are," he explains.
And then there's Alan Arkin as Wonderstone's aged mentor, a curmudgeonly legend named Rance Holloway who's confined to a nursing home. I don't know why, but with age and ever-drier delivery, Arkin becomes even more of a scene-stealer.
Looming over them all is crass casino mogul Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who gleefully tosses off some of the movie's coarser lines.
Directed loosely by frequent 30 Rock episodic director Don Scardino, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone squeezes ample cheese out of its Vegas milieu. The tricks - some of which are CGI enhanced - look believably mystifying. Copperfield, who has a cameo, also acted as creative consultant (and created an opening illusion), so there's no faulting the movie on that score.
But ultimately, Burt Wonderstone follows the "rules." Plot tropes drain the movie of its anarchic magic. There are "life lessons" to be learned, an improbable happy ending and a girl to get - Olivia Wilde as Jane, a beautiful, wannabe magician who is initially repulsed by Wonderstone's in-your-face egotism and chauvinism (she is to this movie as Christina Applegate was to Anchorman).
Still, a little corn is a small price to pay for a taste of wonder, or even a few laughs.