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in Sundance
on Jan 20, 2008

Sean McGinly’s debut feature The Great Buck Howard is a curious, small-scale relationship comedy/drama about an over-the-hill entertainer and his young, directionless-in-life assistant. Colin Hanks stars as the assistant, Troy, who signs up for the gig after impulsively bolting law school and the career track his dad, played by Hanks’s real-life dad Tom, is pushing him towards. A wiggy John Malkovich is the entertainer – specifically, a mentalist, whose claim to fame is having appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times (but never in the last ten years of the show, he ruefully admits as one point). Hanks gives a relaxed, low-key performance, but it’s hard for an audience to invest much in his underdeveloped character. Malkovich goes the opposite way, energetically turning his “Buck Howard” into a show-biz cartoon, a caricature of an impossible-to-please has-been who travels with his show through the flyover states while the larger entertainment culture passes him by. Emily Blunt adds a much-needed spark as a seen-it-all celebrity publicist. The Great Buck Howard’s slender storyline deals with Howard attempting to stage a comeback by staging a new “effect” – a mass hypnosis – in Akron that will attract the attention of the new round of Vegas and late-night-talk bookers.

One of the film’s problems is its failure to come up with engaging ways to turn the relationship between Howard and Troy into anything resembling a real story. Troy is Howard’s assistant and tour manager, but, in terms of dramatic action, he’s given nothing to do that affects Howard’s act in any way. We expect him to get drawn into both Howard’s life and the methodology of his effects, but he is never much more than a bemused observer of this show-biz “fossil” he’s randomly hooked up with. The film’s dramatic heavy lifting is handled, unfortunately, by a cloying voiceover in which Troy contextualizes the whole tale as a necessary pit stop on his way to accumulating the life experience he needs to become… a TV writer. As for the comedy, most of it revolves around Howard’s eccentricities — his penchant for playing “What the World Needs Now” mid-show and his professed love for Star Trek‘s George Takei — and supporting turns by Steve Zahn and Debra Monk as the well-meaning bumpkins who host Howard during his Akron stay.

In the last few years, there have been a few movies set within the world of magic and illusion. The best of these, like Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, makes the craft of the film’s magician character integral to the story. The Great Buck Howard deals with magic’s sister art of mentalism, which, due to the work of performers like Derren Brown, is experiencing something of a revival these days. Howard’s character seems clearly based on The Amazing Kreskin, who was a regular on TV in the ‘70s, and the film tips its hat to today’s magic scene by casting Ricky Jay as Howard’s manager and, in a brief cameo, David Blaine as himself. But The Great Buck Howard doesn’t have any insights into the art, and, considering that mentalism deals with issues of psychology, personality and influence, the film’s inability to use this subject matter to create more dramatic situations for its characters is pretty disappointing.

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