As a better movie taught us before, a magic trick has three stages, two of which "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" executes well.
There's the pledge, an ordinary object that will be transformed into something extraordinary in stage two, the turn. Then there's the prestige, the third stage when something completely unexpected and incredible happens. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" does take a nice mid-trick turn and displays prestige in its finale. But the pledge, the setup, is all wrong and for the first half hour so is the comedy.
Now you laugh at it, now you don't.
The failed pledge in this movie is Steve Carell, who ordinarily seems like a nice guy even when he's playing insufferably dopey on "The Office," or insufferably insecure in "Little Miss Sunshine." Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, a Las Vegas magician who is just plain insufferable for the first third of Don Scardino's movie. Burt is a sexist pig, a preening prima donna despite his stage partner since childhood, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi, who isn't suited to such silliness).
Burt is not a nice guy or, as it turns out a funny character until he's humbled and Carell's innate charm as an actor is allowed to emerge.
Burt and Anton are on top of the magic biz until they're not, when the act splits up from sheer fear that their feats of prestidigitation are now obsolete. The reason for this feeling is the movie's turn, an infusion of comic genius so long unseen in movies that it was practically forgotten.
The genius is Jim Carrey, dropping the serious actor pose and again letting loose the rubber face and implausible physicality that made him a star. Carrey plays Steve Gray, a bull's-eye spoof of David Blaine and Criss Angel's brand of masochistic magic. Steve is a performer who'll endure three days of not blinking or 12 days without urinating and call it a mystical breach of reality. Audiences eat it up; Burt and Anton barf it back.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" then doubles down on the wacky humor Carell and Buscemi don't have written for them. The irrepressible, irreplaceable Alan Arkin shows up as the old-school magician whose home tricks kit started Burt and Anton on the road to success and less. I will go to my grave declaring any movie will be better if Arkin appears in it, and hold up this one as proof.
The professional rivalry between Burt and Anton, and theirs with Steve, finally gains traction as the finish line appears. The third act of Scardino's movie is very funny, and its finale featuring the exposure of an impossibly successful illusion is flat-out brilliant. It's just too bad that the movie's opening act is so sleight of humor, damaging the movie's potential.
Now you see it. Then you don't.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is rated PG-13 for dangerous stunts, profanity, drug and sexual content.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (PG-13). Directed by Don Scardino; screenplay by Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley. A Warner Bros. release. At Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough), North Adams Movieplex 8, and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington). 1 hour 40 minutes
WITH: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield