Great Buck Howard, The (United States, 2009)

March 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Great Buck Howard, The Poster

The Great Buck Howard offers John Malkovich an opportunity to do a little mugging for the camera as he plays a character who is, by nature, larger than life. Buck Howard, a fictional representation of The Amazing Kreskin, is part star and part lounge lizard. He's the proverbial legend in his own mind. The genial film, brought to the screen with a certain amount of compassion by director Sean McGinly, who could just as easily have taken the gloves off and made this a nasty, bitter satire, manages to score some telling points about the nature of stardom and how fast Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame can pass. Despite the presence of some A-list performers, The Great Buck Howard can't shake the feeling that it's more on the level of made-for-TV than something destined for theatrical greatness. Like its main character, the production rarely seems ready for prime time.

Our initial impression of Buck Howard, as seen through the eyes of the man who will become his personal assistant, Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks), is that he's a major figure in the entertainment industry. It turns out he's a classic has-been. A once-renowned mentalist who frequently appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the '70s, Buck hasn't seen the business end of a camera in decades and is reduced to doing cheesy live shows in front of half-full auditoriums in small towns. Ever the optimist, Buck believes that his big break is "just around the corner." Troy is skeptical, as is Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt), a local publicist brought in to help amplify Buck's image.

Hollywood is fond of making movies about aging celebrities who are past their "sell by" date. Old generals may fade away, but people used to the spotlight often sacrifice their last shreds of dignity trying to crawl back into it. Like a boxer whose punch-less comebacks are the fodder for countless punch lines, some stars simply can't recognize when it's over. In a way, The Great Buck Howard is about a man making the journey from self-delusion to recognition. And, while many films view this sort of odyssey as a tragic one (consider, for example, Darren Aronofsky's recent The Wrestler), The Great Buck Howard sees it in a gentler light.

McGinly focuses on three key relationships. There's the friction-filled one between Troy and his buttoned-down dad (Tom Hanks). Dad wants Troy to go to law school, but Troy wants to follow his dream of writing, and therein lies the conflict. There's a PG romance between Troy and Valerie. One is tempted to call Valerie a disposable character, but because she's played by Emily Blunt (who can also currently be seen in Sunshine Cleaning) and Blunt can do a lot with a little, the character ends up seeming more substantial than she is. The central relationship is the love/hate thing between Troy and Buck. Troy may never learn how Buck performs his signature magic trick, but he gets to peek behind the curtain and see what makes the man tick, and that's in some ways more intriguing.

As an actor, Colin Hanks doesn't have much gravitas, but the role doesn't require much in that direction. It's unclear whether he'll ever expand to fill his father's shoes; great things were expected for him after Orange County (although I'm not sure why), but they haven't materialized. Nevertheless, Troy appears tailor-made for him. Meanwhile, Malkovich has fun with Buck - this is a part an actor can sink his teeth into. But Buck isn't all big smiles, sunglasses, and gripes about Jay Leno. Malkovich modulates his performance in such a way that we, like Troy, see what's mostly hidden behind the curtain. Tom Hanks heads an idiosyncratic list of cameos: Tom Arnold, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, John Stewart, Martha Stewart, George Takei, and Gary Coleman.

If there's a glaring fault with The Great Buck Howard, it's that, although the character may linger in the mind after the end credits roll, the plot quickly evaporates like one of Buck Howard's magic tricks. All that's really left in the end is Malkovich's performance. The themes - how a tabloid-centered culture flocks to the celebrity of the day then discards him when the luster rubs off and how some people sacrifice everything for their job - are potentially rich, but they are soft-peddled here and don't have any staying power. Malkovich's Buck Howard may indeed be "great," but the film is not.

Great Buck Howard, The (United States, 2009)

Director: Sean McGinly
Cast: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Steve Zahn, Tom Hanks
Screenplay: Sean McGinly
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Music: Blake Neely
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1