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Our review of The Great Buck Howard (Blu-Ray), published July 21st, 2009, is also available.
Get ready for the comeback of a lifetime.
Writer/director Sean McGinly had an early job as the road manager for The Amazing Kreskin, one of the most popular mentalists of the '70s and '80s. McGinly used Kreskin as the model for the central character in The Great Buck Howard, a coming-of-age film that never quite sorts out what it's trying to do, but has a good deal of fun along the way. Magnolia Home Entertainment is proud to present the premier mentalist of our time—the one, the only, The Great Buck Howard!
Facts of the Case
Troy Gable (Colin Hanks, Orange County, and son of some guy named Tom) has just finished his second year of law school only to discover that he can't stand the law. Toby wants to be a writer, but before he can pursue that dream, he needs a job to pay for, you know, everything. Without telling his father (Tom Hanks, father of Colin Hanks), Troy drops out of law school and gets a job as road manager for Buck Howard (John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire). Howard was once the greatest mentalist in the United States, with sixty-one appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Howard awed the nation with his act, which ended with his signature effect—two audience members hide his pay somewhere in the audience; if Howard can't find it, he doesn't get paid. Decades of performances later, Howard has always found his money, but his act has grown old, and he is now reduced to playing small venues across the country. As they make their way across the nation, Toby works to get a bead on the quirky, often pompous Buck. It's weird work, but everything is propelled by Howard's unrelenting determination that his comeback is just around the corner once he perfects his new effect, in which he puts an entire room of people to sleep.
Things get a little tricky in Cincinnati when he starts sleeping with Buck's publicist (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), but an unlikely sequence of events results in a PR boom, and before you can say "Suck it, Simon Baker," Buck has an offer to headline at Las Vegas. But Vegas has changed a lot since the last time Howard played there, and suddenly, he has to decide what he really wants out of life.
Please, someone, anyone, start casting John Malkovich in more comedies. If this movie is any indication, the man has some seriously untapped potential. Buck Howard is obsessive, manipulative, pompous, and occasionally oblivious, but the second he hits the stage, he's charming, full of fun. When Toby tells him that a reporter from the Internet is there to interview him, Malkovich totally sells the line: "I've never even heard of that newspaper." Simply watching Malkovich react to the various indignities visited upon Howard is pretty much worth the price of admission.
The movie sports a number of solid supporting turns, particularly Steve Zahn as an off-kilter limo driver, and Emily Blunt as a publicist who can't make Howard understand that no one is interested in him anymore. In addition, the movie features cameos by several performers whose careers have suffered similar fates, including Don Most (Happy Days), Bill "…but ya doesn't hasta call me Johnson" Saluga, and Michael Winslow (Police Academy). Overall, the film does a great job of recreating life on the road and today's media culture, getting a lot of local and national news and media people to contribute everything from faux news reports to an appearance on Live with Regis and Kelly.
The picture is good. Colors are a little muted, but that's probably the palette cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs) was going for. The sound is solid, but there's nothing there to really tax the 5.1 mix. Magnolia provides a decent set of extras. The commentary track with McGinly and Colin Hanks is sporadic, but interesting. There's a short featurette with The Amazing Kreskin that's kind of fun—Howard's act is pretty much identical to Kreskin's, though the plot events are made up. Short but interesting is a series of outtakes that are basically four or five takes of the same scene, allowing you to see Malkovich read the same lines in multiple ways. A set of extended scenes expands the various news clips.
Trivia: Buck Howard's Vegas act was filmed in the Hollywood Palladium, the interior of which also served as The Palace Ballroom in The Blues Brothers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Very simply, Toby is far too passive to be a lead character. He's pretty much along for the ride, and we never see any kind of emotional investment from him. Moreover, Toby seems strangely unaffected by events—there's no change of heart, change of career plan, or anything else that suggests that suggests that the experience was anything more than a particularly interesting job.
Toby's passivity is magnified by Colin Hanks' lack of film presence, particularly when compared to the other cast members. Hanks has his father's genial likeability, which comes through in his scenes with Emily Blunt, but he just doesn't have the chops to hang with a performer the caliber of Malkovich or, for that matter, most of the supporting players.
The "writer coming of age" story has been done more than a few times over the years. When it's done well, the results can be magnificent, as in Almost Famous or My Favorite Year. The film works great as a character study and as a vehicle for Malkovich; as a coming-of-age film, though, it never quite matures.
Buck Howard is indeed great. This film? Not so much. Guilty.
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