The Great Buck Howard
Directed by Sean McGinly. Starring Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn. (2008, PG, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 20, 2009
Disillusioned with law school, Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks) drops out to become a writer but takes a paying job as the assistant to and road manager for the has-been mentalist Buck Howard (Malkovich). Thus begins this young man's coming-of-age story, a pale journey made even more flimsy when compared with the intriguing life history of his idiosyncratic employer. Malkovich's performance in this small film is one of controlled eccentricity, and the character's offbeat charm and ineffable oddness add another triumph to the actor's pantheon of weirdos. An affected fop and consummate showman, Buck's biggest claim to fame is that he appeared 61 times on The Tonight Show – "with Johnny Carson," he always hastens to add. Of course that also means it's been a couple of decades since he was last on television, so his audience now is generally made up of old-timers and pushovers for his particular blend of cheesy theatrics and wondrous stunts. Troy, too, succumbs to the mystery of his act, which more than makes up for Buck's frequent displays of bad temper and vain delusions of grandeur. The greatest problem with The Great Buck Howard is that writer/director McGinly shapes the story with young Troy as the protagonist, when the really interesting character is the one for whom the movie is named. Unfortunately, Malkovich's commanding performance also accentuates the limits of young Hanks' acting skills. He's perfectly adequate, but as soon as his real-life father, Tom Hanks, appears onscreen in a couple of unnecessary scenes as Troy's fictional father (ironically trying to dissuade him from a life in show business), the gale force of the senior Hanks clips the sails of the younger actor's leading-man status. Troy's voiceover narration recurringly interrupts the film's enjoyment while it points out the life lessons he learns along the way, as though we'd be unable to discern them on our own. Despite the drawbacks, however, The Great Buck Howard puts on an unforgettable show.