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3 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Great Buck Howard, The
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by Erik Childress

"Starring The Great John Malkovich"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: The great thing about magic, is that for all its corniness and everything we think we’ve seen before, we still want to believe in it. To be amazed at how such a thing could be pulled off, even if it’s just a skillful slight of hand motion. That we aren’t distracted enough by the magician’s assistant and her classed up sex appeal to give an extra “oooh” and “ahhh” when the signature trick is repeated time and again. The Great Buck Howard invests us in a has-been from the less flashy, parlor-trick time of magic, hopeful that a comeback may be on the horizon for an entertainer whose personality may be more complicated than his “effects.” Certainly not near the class of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which structured the final days of illusion with the advent of science, but writer/director Sean McGinly doesn’t carry with him such a lofty notion. Like his lead character, he just wants to put on a good show and to that, he does it quite well.

Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks) has a case of the indecision. Burned out by his indifference to law school, he seeks alternatives to the profession chosen for him by his father and comes across an ad for a celebrity personal assistant. Buck Howard (John Malkovich) may have been as such when he was doing Carson’s The Tonight Show over 60 times, but now its whatever small town and local theater will have him. Buck is a mentalist and his show consists of hypnotism and various guessing games always concluding with his most famous effect, a hide-and-seek amongst the audience to find the money he’s being paid for the show. An effect he’s never failed. Where Buck does fail is in, almost a celebrity cliché, personal manners. He’s demanding, picky and rather cheap; all on-the-job training for Troy who accepts the job immediately only to watch the previous stage manager (Adam Scott) storm out in a huff.

During their time on the road, a career path gone unapproved by Troy’s father (Tom Hanks, in a pair of nicely welcome scenes), Buck plans to unveil a brand new effect; one that will put him back on the relevant map once again. To help pave the way to the big moment is publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) who is instantly insulted by Buck but takes just as quick a liking to Troy; his earnest ambitions perhaps refreshing to the usual spate of celebrity pandering she normally has to deal with. For all the abuse Troy takes and witnesses from the egotistical control fiend, there’s still something about Buck’s deterrence to fading away that he admires and his willingness to believe in his effects even while regularly scrutinized as deceptive by others provides the thin, but most acceptable core to the film’s well being.

The skin of the film is nothing new as can be contested by seeing Swimming With Sharks or its feminine counterpart, The Devil Wears Prada. McGinly’s script though isn’t nearly as harsh or contemptuously trying to be (like Prada) and that opens us up to riding its genial coattails through Buck’s questionable triumphs. Much of the film’s success comes from Malkovich’s performance; a reminder that in-between the occasional Walken-esque ham that arrives with his presence he’s capable of delivering great work as he has in recent, almost forgotten, films like Shadow of the Vampire, Ripley’s Game and Art School Confidential. As Buck Howard, Malkovich delivers the grandiose shouting moments but eventually allows us behind the curtain to see a man who isn’t just simple condescension and full of ruses. His signature greeting becomes more than just a line and his final wink at the end has a genuineness that has us, like Troy, believing too. Hanks plays the straight man just fine, proving he inherited more than just a name. (Although the voiceover he is given is a little too spot-on and unnecessary.) Steve Zahn has some fun as an overly eager transporter for Buck and has a touching final scene. Then there’s Emily Blunt, who may not have as much on the page, but somehow manages to imbue each exchange with a kind of cynical wit (as she did so well in Prada) that is turning her into one of the freshest comedic actresses working today. Blunt can now also share the distinction of having had both Hanks in the sack on screen (Remember the staircase in Charlie Wilson’s War? I do.)

The Great Buck Howard is a lot like seeing one of the shows of its titular character. Pleasant enough with a memorable enough finale, but a week later you may forget you saw it. That’s OK though. Not every film can be The Prestige and Lord knows there are hundreds of films you’d rather choose to forget about then the good ones that just kinda fade into obscurity. The irony that The Great Buck Howard will probably only play in major cities instead of the small ones he purports to love adds a little extra texture to the scenes in Vegas. But its hard to imagine the film not playing well in any city. It’s an all-ages type of show, doesn’t cost much, you’ll laugh a few times (Malkovich’s response to being offered distilled water is a genuine keeper) and smile even more. Then when The Great Buck Howard makes his way around again to DVD and onto cable, you may just be inclined to take in another matinee.

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originally posted: 07/17/08 00:45:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/17/08 Vickie Couturier I liked it myself,it was the type of movie I enjoy 4 stars
7/17/08 Eloise Carlson Weird movie, very hard to understand. 2 stars
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  20-Mar-2009 (PG)
  DVD: 21-Jul-2009


  DVD: 21-Jul-2009

Directed by
  Sean McGinly

Written by
  Sean McGinly

  Colin Hanks
  John Malkovich
  Emily Blunt
  Tom Hanks
  Steve Zahn

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