Here's a simple rule of thumb for the Will Ferrell era of comedy: if you're making a zany comedy about some weird sport or activity (pretty much anything with an odd costume), don't forget to actually cast Will Ferrell in the lead role.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a comedy about celebrity magicians, ignores the Ferrell rule -- followed with memorable effect in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Blades of Glory -- and pays dearly for it. Standing in for Ferrell as the titular character is Steve Carell, a megalomaniacal master of sleight of hand who is a cross between David Copperfield and Sigfried and/or Roy. Carell is a capable funnyman -- anyone who watched the American version of The Office is well acquainted with his skill. But he is overmatched as Burt Wonderstone. Maybe a film will come along that will change that perception, but for now I want my Carell in the form of either an unwitting, impossible-to-hate asshole (Michael Scott) or sweet, sensitive straight man (Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin).
When I see him trying to pull off the bombastic, improvisational jackass that Ferrell has already perfected, I just wish it was Ferrell in his place.
That's a shame because Burt Wonderstone has plenty of potential, some of which was even realized. Celebrity magicians are worthy of mockery, both the type portrayed by Carell and Jim Carrey's David Blaine-a-like Steve Gray, who serves as Carell's foil. Carrey, a comedian who was Ferrell before Ferrell was Ferrell (remember Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, everyone?), only further exposes his counterpart's trouble with the sort of role in to which he has been thrust.
Steve Buscemi's turn as Wonderstone's sidekick and lifelong friend Anton Marvelton is a nice reminder that Nucky Thompson can do funny too, and the rest of the ensemble cast, which includes James Gandolfini, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin and a brief but excellent cameo from Jay Mohr, is actually quite good.
But Carell is the guy tasked with tying the whole enterprise together. You can tell he's really (really, really) trying, but, for me at least, the effort does not really pay off. The blame for that does not lie with him, but rather with director Don Scardino (best known for his extensive work on 30 Rock) and the folks on the other side of the camera who should have put their star in a better position to succeed.