Thursday, March 19, 2009

Buck Howard Blew My Mind

Once upon a time, Buck Howard (John Malkovich) spent his days in the limelight. His mind-boggling feats as a mentalist extraordinaire – not to be confused with those of a mere magician - earned him a marquee act in Vegas and 61 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. But nowadays, it’s clear to everyone but Buck that his act has lost its luster; he performs in faded community centers and hasn’t sold out a theater in years. Yet, with a hearty handshake and a trademark “I love this town!” Buck Howard perseveres, confident in his own celebrity, convinced his comeback is imminent. He just needs a new road manager and personal assistant. As it turns out, recent law school drop-out and unemployed, would-be writer Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) needs a job and a purpose in The Great Buck Howard.

No one does raging unlovability quite like John Malkovich, who’s a total gas when he drops the bombast that often bogs down his more serious roles. Not that Buck Howard, the once-great mentalist now playing to half-empty theaters in Hicksville, lacks for pathos — or for glory. His lounge act is excruciating, his standup terrible, but his one gift, locating his paycheck in the clothing of an audience member, has never let him down — until now, it goes without saying. Based on a magician known to writer-director Sean McGinly, this loudly dressed, insecure blowhard with a pumping handshake and severe anger-management problems may also be an ambivalent tribute to Jerry Lewis. Either way, Malkovich swallows up the screen, and when he’s out of frame, the movie feels slack and slow. Hobbled by lack of definition, Buck’s assistant and McGinly’s alter ego, Troy (Colin Hanks), a law school dropout with dreams of writing, comes across as pallid and passionless, while the talents of Emily Blunt as a go-getting publicist and Steve Zahn as a small-town fan go wretchedly to waste. Like so many cinematic young men before him, Troy (Hanks) has entered the world having no idea what to do with himself, and drops out of law school when he wakes up one day and decides he just can't do it anymore. He rather anachronistically goes to the classified ads to look for jobs, and finds himself at an interview with The Great Buck Howard, an illusionist who warmed Johnny Carson's couch back in the 70s, but is now limited to engagements at places like Cincinnati Town Auditorium. Full of catchphrases ("I love this town!" he pronounces at every show) and a foolproof routine, Buck is a larger-than-life presence who sweeps up Troy in his wake. Buck is a tyrant and a cheapskate, yes, but he becomes a kind of father figure to Troy while his own dad (Tom Hanks, naturally) disapproves of this new direction in his son's life. Things get complicated, and the movie finally takes a breath after an endless series of montages, when Buck settles in Cincinnati to pull a grand publicity stunt, performing an illusion that's never been done before. A comely PR rep (Emily Blunt) flies in from New York to help out, and when she and Troy begin a hotel room dalliance, it's only the beginning of the unforeseen troubles. Malkovich carries much of the movie's comedy with Buck's constant self-aggrandizing, but some help comes in from the sidelines from Steve Zahn and a kooky mustache, Debra Monk as an over-excited Cincinnati promoter, and even Adam Scott in a tiny role as Troy's predecessor. Near the end of the movie the celebrity cameos go a little out of control, for reasons I don't want to spoil, and Buck Howard goes from feeling like a shoestring indie to the Hollywood production it actually is. But for the most part the movie coasts remarkably well on charm, even during Troy's endless voiceovers that put much too fine a point on the generic coming-of-age themes of the movie. None of the ideas that Buck Howard is espousing are particularly original, but luckily Malkovich and the movie itself make sure you have a good time anyway. Slight but satisfying, The Great Buck Howard examines an over-the-hill performer with an objective eye that is borderline brutal. Yet this comedy softens the blow with laughs, heart and a lingering sense of mystery. This entertaing movie gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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