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The Gloves Are Off
For all that Burt represents and all that he has achieved in a decade of exhibition, both on and off the stage, Scardino sees him primarily as "a peacock. He's kind of foolish and full of himself, in love with his own reflection. If someone said to him, 'I can't tell you how great you are,' he'd say, 'Oh, please try.' But Steve plays the part so endearingly and is so likeable that, despite this guy's massive ego, you could still fall for Burt Wonderstone. You still like him and find yourself rooting for him to get back in touch with the decent person you know he used to be."

Bender acknowledges it's a fine line to tread, but, "When Steve came aboard it was a real 'ah-hah' moment for us and a turning point for the project, because we knew we'd found the right actor to embrace those contradictions and strike that balance beautifully."

Beneath the veneer and the superstar lifestyle Burt flaunts, not to mention the women recruited nightly from his audiences and dismissed in the morning with an autographed photo as a parting gift, Carell points out, "His life is empty. In some ways he's still that awkward nerd he was at 12, who had no friends until Anton came along, but he's conveniently forgotten that. He thinks he doesn't need Anton anymore, that he's way past that."

The truth is, if either of them is past that, it should be Anton.

"He loved Burt like a brother," says Buscemi, who calls Anton "one of the sweetest characters I've ever played, if not the sweetest. He loves magic, and all he ever wanted to do in life was put on shows with Burt and see the joy in the faces of the audience. When the act breaks up it breaks his heart."

"Steve is a phenomenal actor and he brought so much to the table for Anton," says Mitchell. "He makes things funny that you didn't even think, from the page, would be funny, and he puts so much of himself into it that you really believe this friendship and bond that the two of them once had, even though it's not so apparent anymore."

It was Scardino who suggested Buscemi for the role, having worked with him on episodes of "30 Rock," and says, "When we put him together with Steve Carell there was instant chemistry. Originally we considered having a choreographer design their stage act, but Steve and Steve just naturally found a way of dancing around each other and doing these crazy mirrored poses. It was a lot of improvisation and it was really their connection that made it work. They're great together."

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley feel that Burt and Anton are more alike than different. "They came from the same place," says Goldstein. "They were outcast kids who found each other and used magic to brighten their lives, and they kind of became flip sides of the same coin. Burt was all about the trappings of stardom, the fame and the power while Anton was more committed to the craft and putting on the best possible show for the sake of the fans."

Anton has also been unquestionably the more devoted friend, notes Daley. "He's been Burt's cheerleader and confidante through all these years. But eventually, even he has only so much patience for his partner's shenanigans."

When Anton finally takes his show on the road, solo, it's as far as possible from the lights of Las Vegas, but still not so far from the only thing he knows how to do. Redirecting his energy into a heartfelt -- if misguided -- new venture called Operation Presto, he sets out to bring magic to underprivileged children around the world, one marked deck at a time.

Meanwhile, Burt continues to fixate on magic's grungy rising star as the source of all his problems. "Steve Gray has a magical friendship with the devil as far as Burt is concerned," states Carell. "Clearly, Burt hates this guy who's suddenly getting all the attention. Gray appeals to a more youthful audience and he's all the things that Burt is not, so Burt is jealous and outraged. But more than that, he feels that Gray's displays are shocking and grotesque, and show no respect for the art and culture of magic. So it's doubly galling to realize that Gray is kicking his butt with this stuff."

"Gray is the outsider. He doesn't go about things in the normal way and people don't understand him," Carrey concedes, although the misunderstanding might be exactly what Gray intends. "He is ultimately his own worst enemy."

Leaning more toward performance art than magic, Burt's long-haired nemesis recalibrates the magicians' mandate from "amaze" to "shock," with ever-escalating feats of endurance like being doused with pepper spray or playing chicken with bodily functions. He even ups the ante on the old pick-a-card routine by giving it a surgical interpretation its original inventors would have blanched to imagine.

The actor's twists on existing gags included transforming Gray into a human pinata and extending a torture test so that, instead of lying on burning coals for a few blistering minutes, he gets a blanket and opts to spend the night.

"Jim took everything we had on the page to the nth degree," says Bender. "What he brought to the process was really an embarrassment of riches. I think he saw immediately the kind of fun he could have with the character and the wild things a guy like that would do."

"It's hard to describe how amazing he is," says avowed fan Carell. "When you're doing a scene with Jim you can't help but stand back and observe. He has complete commitment to what he's doing and he's such a perfectionist. It's exhausting just watching him. I don't know where he gets the energy."

For all his hippie homilies and casual dismissal of the kind of fame Burt symbolizes, Steve Gray is fiercely driven. "He plays it cool, but that's just to mask his ambition," Carrey reveals. "From the beginning, he wants what Burt and Anton have. That's why he has to make it seem like he thinks Wonderstone is a worthless hack and that nothing he does has purpose or meaning. Burt is in his way. He's standing where Gray wants to be and displacing him becomes his whole focus. Plus, he's a real head-tripper."

Once Anton is out of the picture, and Burt is on the decline, Gray's objective appears to be well within reach. But Burt may have at least one more person left in his corner -- Nicole -- rather, Jane -- the assistant who bailed on him shortly after Anton did. Though she never once succumbed to what Burt assumed was his irresistible charm, and she didn't have the kindest words for him at their last parting, he hopes she still feels enough loyalty to the old act to prevent her from slamming the door in his face.

A magicians' assistant by default, Jane was plucked from the show's backstage crew one night after Burt and Anton's previous eye-candy associate quit during intermission. "She's literally tossed off her feet, her clothes are ripped off in the wings and they throw a costume on her, slap on a blonde wig, and push her out on stage so she's totally out of her depth the first second we see her," offers Scardino.

Adds Bender, "She's actually an aspiring illusionist who used to admire Burt Wonderstone very much. Of course, that was before she met him."

Seeing the character as smart and confident, but with a kind of awkwardness that was fun to play with, Olivia Wilde says, "The way Jane is thrust into the act completely unprepared gave me a chance to play up the comedy of the situation, which was something new for me. I like the idea of her having to overcome her stage fright on the job, being nervous and not wanting to get into that ridiculous spangled outfit but having no choice."

In those few frantic seconds before the curtain goes up, it's Anton who calmly applies Jane's lipstick, a personal touch that, Wilde says, "Steve Buscemi came up with at the last second, and it really helps to establish their camaraderie right off the bat."

Jane's relationship with Burt, though, was not nearly as intimate, in any sense of the word. "He experiences a different dynamic with her," Carell admits. "She's tougher and more intelligent and focused than the women he's accustomed to dating. Frankly, any woman who dates or sleeps with Burt Wonderstone immediately regrets it and hates herself, and Jane certainly wouldn't do that because she's better than that."

Surprisingly, Jane believes Burt is better than that, too. A fan since childhood, she credits him with inspiring her interest in the many facets of magic and, despite her disappointment, still shares that affinity with him. "She's horrified to see how lazy and entitled he's become and how he's lost his way, but also believes that, somewhere inside, he's still brilliant," Wilde says.

That's something Burt can appreciate, because he once held someone else in similar esteem. It was Rance Holloway, a quintessential 1960s magician with a polished patter, a black cape, and a rabbit in his hat, who introduced young Burt to the art of illusion through an old video tape the youngster played until he knew it forwards and backwards. Though the two never met, and Rance has effectively disappeared since his glory days, Burt is in for a big surprise.

Oscar-winner Alan Arkin, who portrays the venerable conjurer at opposite ends of his career timeline, says, "Rance was the reason why Burt chose this life. I get to play him as an old man, and also as a young man, so I'm praying for a lot of CGI."

Now, at what appears to be the end of the line for Burt, he unexpectedly encounters Rance at a Las Vegas retirement home, and it's as if he becomes a kid again. Unfortunately for him, the magician emeritus is now a stubborn old crank who has turned his back on the profession and does everything he can to shake his biggest fan off his sleeve.

"The problem," says writer Chad Kultgen, "is that Rance already knows what Burt has yet to understand: if you lose your passion for what you're doing, if it starts to become what it was not originally about, you're going to end up doing bad work. And if that's all he can do, he'd rather not try anymore."

"There was only one voice in my head for Rance, and that was Alan's," Scardino attests. "I've admired his work my entire life. He and Steve Carell are cut from the same cloth. Alan was one of the original members of Second City in the '60s and Steve was one of its leading lights, years later, so they share that experience and technique. We found that the best thing to do in rehearsals was just let them loose."

"I love working with Steve; we have a real give-and-take," says Arkin. "It's the third time we've worked together and we're like an old vaudeville team."

As Burt struggles to restore Rance's dormant gift, he gets his first professional gig in months -- a backyard birthday party for former boss Doug Munny's young son. Granted, Munny's backyard is the size of a tarmac and the guest list includes all the glitterati in town. This could be his chance to show everyone he's still got it.

The stakes rise even higher when it appears that the party is an excuse for the hotel honcho to unveil his new namesake property...and a contest to find the best entertainer in Vegas to grace its main theater. With Anton still MIA and his act in need of a partner, Burt is now desperate to get Rance back in the game. But more importantly, can he get himself back in the game?

Says Gandolfini, "It doesn't matter to Munny whose name is on the marquee, or what he thinks of them. If they're making him money he likes them, and when they're not making him money, he doesn't like them anymore. It's all about the bottom line for him."

Scardino remembers the actor asking why they wanted him for the role. "He said, 'I'm not funny. Am I going to have to make faces and be goofy?' I said, 'You're not funny?! Have you seen your TV show? You're hilarious. Scary, but hilarious.' We weren't looking for goofy; we just wanted him to play it straight, like he's the most powerful player in Vegas."

Rounding out the film's main cast are Jay Mohr as Rick the Implausible, and Michael Bully Herbig as big-cat wrangler Lucius Belvedere, Burt and Anton's marginally employed contemporaries, with real-life Vegas headliner Brad Garrett appearing as Burt's I-told-you-so business manager, Dom, and Gillian Jacobs as a star-struck audience volunteer, Miranda.

The success of Belvedere's act is evident by the bandages that cover large portions of his body, while Mohr, cast as the struggling comic Rick, concedes, "He's so horrible that he can't even come up with a good name. He's that guy who, when you're at a restaurant, comes up to the table and does bad magic tricks and you think, 'Gee, I wish he would leave us alone.' In fact, that's how I prepared for the part, approaching strangers at Applebee's."

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