Once upon a time, Buck Howard (John Malkovich) spent his days in the limelight as a mentalist extraordinaire! Nowadays, it's clear to everyone except Buck that his act has lost its luster. Convinced his comeback is imminent, Buck needs a new road manager and personal assistant. Recent law school drop-out and would-be writer Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) needs a job and a purpose. Working for the pompous, has-been mentalist fills the former requirement, but how it satisfies the latter is questionable. Nonetheless, with the aid of a fiery publicist (Emily Blunt) and a bold stroke of luck, Buck lands back in the American consciousness, taking Troy along for the ride.
John Malkovich may be better known for his dramatic performances, but this is one talented actor who is just as adept at drama as he is at comedy. Writer/director Sean McGinly’s “The Great Buck Howard” is really a cross between comedy and drama, a dramedy if you will, and there’s no doubt its greatest asset is Malkovich in the lead role.
Buck Howard is an over-the-hill magician. Where once he filled venues around the country and appeared 61 times on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, now Buck hits the road from country town to country town, performing his classic tricks at community halls to the local folks. Following his sad slide to obscurity is law-school dropout Troy (Colin Hanks), hitting the road as Buck’s assistant/manager while figuring out what he wants to do with his life.
Their road trip is one infused with nostalgia, as McGinly takes us through the back halls of show business, the town hall settings when entertainers would perform to the local crowds and then grow in popularity and acclaim before finally making it to the national stage. No more are such intimate settings held with much reverence, nor are they the draws in their heydays. Like Buck Howard, they are slowly becoming anachronistic- though Buck still lives in denial of both their fates.
But Buck is not alone with such a mentality- within each one of us is that instinct of clinging on to the things that define us, that make us feel accomplished, especially so when the glory days of our success slowly slip from our grip. Malkovich brings a great measure of empathy to the role of Buck Howard- with his sly, knowing smiles tinged with sadness- that makes his character both relevant and relatable.
Next to Malkovich’s understated performance, Colin Hanks’ everyday-man charm as Troy just doesn’t quite measure up. When Malkovich and the younger Hanks are in a scene together, it’s too apparent who owns the screen. In fact, Hanks is better matched against his on and off screen father (Tom Hanks) and their parent pep talk scenes sparkle with a casual ease.
But there is also too much casualness with Sean McGinly’s film, as McGinly forsakes tension and buildup for a genialness that permeates the entire story. Even as Buck is challenged to demonstrate his talents (on accusations that his classic trick is no more than a farce), McGinly doesn’t play up the dramatic potential of that story arc, instead allowing things to go by a little too amiably.
Still, despite the flaws of McGinly’s film, Malkovich is the true gem that makes this well worth the watch. It’s a tough act balancing comedy in an essentially dramatic film, but if there’s one actor who can do so adeptly, it’s got to be him. Indeed, “The Great Buck Howard” is really about that great actor John Malkovich, and one hopes that he will not go down the path of his character one day, for cinema would be poorer without him.
SPECIAL FEATURES :
Commentary with writer/director Sean McGinly and actor Colin Hanks: A somewhat laid-back affair with Colin Hanks doing most of the talking. It would have been nice if John Malkovich could have joined in though.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 that makes full use of the ambient sounds for surround wherever possible. The disc’s visual presentation complements the muted colours of the film and is otherwise without fault.
by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 21 September 2009