Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 21st, 2009
Greatness is a state of mind.
"I love this town!"
Troy Gable (Colin Hanks, Untraceable) has just quit law school. While the decision certainly disappoints his father (Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can), Troy simply felt unhappy and bored by his studies. Just for the sake of making a little bit of money while he tries to figure out what he really wants to do, Troy decides to take a job working as an assistant for a mentalist/magician named Buck Howard (John Malkovich, Burn After Reading). These days Buck only plays to half-full auditoriums in small towns, but once upon a time he was a regular guest on The Tonight Show ("That's The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, not that other idiot who's on there now," he clarifies). However, Buck thinks he may have one last trick up his sleeve. He is preparing for a stunt that he is confident will put him back on top. Will the trick bring Buck back to the world of fame and fortune he yearns to return to? Will Troy's experiences help him find direction in life?
Just before checking out The Great Buck Howard, I wrote a review of a different film in which I complained about the clichéd nature of biopics. I noted that so many of them seem to take such a similar journey in such a similar manner and that I was growing weary of seeing the same thing over and over again. The Great Buck Howard is casually based on the life of a magician named The Amazing Kreskin. The Amazing Kreskin (and Buck Howard, naturally) has lived yet another one of those rise-and-fall lives, but this film does not take the typical approach of most biopics, instead choosing to start during a period in Howard's life that most films would place near the conclusion. There may be a small rise and a small fall, but it's all a relatively inconsequential epilogue to the grand success that has come and gone.
The film seems to be a form of therapy for writer/director Sean McGinly, who has based much of the material here on his own experiences as the personal assistant of The Amazing Kreskin. Perhaps it's because of this that we see Buck Howard through the eyes of his assistant. We see what Troy sees, never getting an opportunity to find out what Buck Howard is doing behind the scenes when Troy is not present. This approach works reasonably well, allowing a fairly goofy character to maintain at least some measure of mystery despite the fact that all of his fumblings and failings are portrayed with merciless attention.
What a joy it is to see John Malkovich in this role. Malkovich is an actor who tends to gravitate toward very serious roles, but his occasionally displayed comic gifts are considerable. He plays Buck Howard as a man who occasionally seems like the most enthusiastically cheerful person in the world and who sometimes seems like a completely insufferable jerk. He is a volatile and high-strung man; a person whose endless grin can quickly turn into a fierce scowl if the slightest thing goes wrong. Though most viewers will be rooting for Buck, it must be admitted that there is considerable pleasure to be found in seeing Malkovich launch into one of his beautifully controlled explosions of rage. I should also note a few small supporting turns that I enjoyed a great deal: Tom Hanks is dryly amusing in his two scenes as Troy's exasperated father, Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) creates yet another hilarious dim bulb (not to mention a hilarious mustache) to add to his resume, and it's always great to see Ricky Jay (Heist) turn up.
The transfer is disappointingly mediocre here, as a surprisingly noticeable level of grain is present during quite a few scenes. I have no problem with a bit of natural grain appearing on a motion picture shot on traditional film, but it seems heavy to the point of being distracting in this case. Detail is also lacking throughout the proceedings, seemingly varying in quality from shot to shot. Fortunately, the bright colors pop quite nicely and blacks are satisfyingly deep. Audio is adequate despite a few nagging problems. The musical score by Blake Neely is somewhat problematic, in particular. Besides the fact that it is an overcooked, obnoxiously wacky effort that tries too hard to accentuate moments of comedy, it is also cranked up too loud in contrast to much of the dialogue here. Otherwise, the DTS-HD track gets the job done.
I was disappointed in the extras, most of which are frustratingly lightweight. The commentary with McGinly and Colin Hanks is a rather dull listen, offering some standard behind-the-scenes info in a less than engaging manner. "Behind the Scenes," (9 minutes) is a very standard-issue EPK-style puff piece featuring lots of back-slapping and plot description. The same applies to "HDNet: A Look at the Great Buck Howard," (4 minutes). 3 minutes of deleted scenes are worthy of a quick peek, while 10 minutes of extended scenes (all of these are Buck's appearance on various late-night talk shows) offer some surprisingly unfunny improvised bits of comedy between Malkovich and the likes of Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, Martha Stewart and others. 3 minutes of outtakes offers a few clips of Malkovich and Tom Arnold riffing through some improvisation-friendly scenes, and "The Amazing Kreskin" (5 minutes) offers a brief interview with the man the film is based on. Nothing exceptional here, I'm afraid.
The film's biggest problem is the role of Troy. It is a problem that Malkovich himself points out during one of the making-of featurettes: "It's a difficult part, because most of it involves simply standing there and reacting to what is going on." Hanks does what he can with the role, turning in a bit of subtly amusing physical comedy from time to time. Still, the fact remains that Troy is a boring character who has nothing to do here. The scenes of romance he shares with Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) don't go anywhere interesting, and his moments of personal introspection are rather tedious. McGinly was undoubtedly deeply invested in these scenes since Troy is clearly supposed to be McGinly (who did indeed have similar yearnings and dreams while working for The Amazing Kreskin), but to most viewers such moments will seem too routine and uninteresting, particularly when contrasted to the delightful flavor of the scenes involving Buck Howard and the other supporting characters. Too many films fall victim to the trap of turning the primary character into a dull observer/audience surrogate (Primary Colors and Scent of a Woman leap to mind, just as quick examples), and I'm sorry that this one couldn't find a way to make Troy more compelling.
A disappointing transfer, even more disappointing supplements, and a dull major character are significant strikes against this disc, but Malkovich's performance is strong enough to save the day and earn The Great Buck Howard a mild recommendation. Give it a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted/Extended Scenes