Wednesday, August 19, 2009

DVD Views: The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard ***
Directed By:
Sean McGinly.
Written By: Sean McGinly.
Starring: John Malkovich (Buck Howard), Colin Hanks (Troy Gable), Emily Blunt (Valerie Brennan), Ricky Jay (Gil Bellamy), Steve Zahn (Kenny), Tom Hanks (Mr. Gable), Griffin Dunne (Johnathan Finerman), Debra Monk (Doreen), Adam Scott (Alan Berkman), Patrick Fischler (Michael Perry).

Buck Howard (John Malkovich) was once a famous magician and mentalist who appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times over the years. Then Johnny, and pretty much everyone else, stopped calling on Buck to be on their shows. He has spent the last few decades holding onto what little fame he has left, playing smaller and smaller venues, to smaller and smaller crowds. His is a classic musician, and he still puts on a hell of a show, but fewer people seem interested in his act then ever before.

Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) is in law school, but decides one day that he absolutely hates it. He only when into law in the first place because his father (Tom Hanks) wanted him to. Like all good confused 20-somethings in the movies, what he really wants to do is write. But he soon discovers that unless he sells his writings, he has no money. He ends up taking a job being Buck’s road manager. His job is to make sure that Buck’s shows goes just according to his exacting standards. Buck alternates between being kind, and being overly demanding. He certainly is an ego-maniac, who believes that his act is still wonderful, and does not understand why that ingrate Jay Leno will never have him on The Tonight Show anymore. But Buck has a plan to get himself back on top. He hires a press agent, Valerie (Emily Blunt) to drum up some media attention for his new illusion that he will unveil in Cincinnati. Things go wrong, not with Buck, but with the media. But then something unexpected happens, and Buck suddenly becomes cool again. This is his chance to get back on top, and he knows it.

The Great Buck Howard is inspired by the career of The Amazing Kreskin, who had a similar career path to Buck’s, and even if people stopped caring about his act, it does not mean that the act stopped being good. Played by the great John Malkovich, Buck Howard is one of the more interesting characters to appear on screen this year. He is a natural born performer, and Malkovich is pretty much the perfect embodiment of a performer of a certain age, trying desperately to hold onto his fame, even after everyone else has stopped caring.

It is almost a shame that the character of Buck Howard is stuck in a movie that is so clichéd in almost every other respect. It would be worse if the other actors in the movie were not as good as they were. Hanks has inherited his father’s everyman goodness and likability. Even if we’ve seen a journey like the one he makes in this movie countless times before, we still quite like him. Emily Blunt is also quite good as Valerie. She knows that Buck’s career is over, but she still does her best for him. She sets her sights on Troy, because he is a nice guy, and because she’s got to spend some time in Cincinnati, and everyone else around is even more boring than Troy is. There are small roles for Tom Hanks, magician Ricky Jay and Steve Zahn, all of which do fine jobs in limited screen time. Yes, the movie is clichéd, but we almost do not care when it is performed this well.

The Great Buck Howard is not a great movie. But it is a movie that entertains us from start to finish, and at only 88 minutes never wears out its welcome. It moves swiftly, but always takes enough time to let the characters interact in a natural, unforced way. The film may not be great, but it is entertaining. In this case, that is enough.

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