The Great Buck Howard
“Did I fart?”

Golden Mug

Supporting Actor (John Malkovich)

Theatrical Release Date: 03/20/2009
Director: Sean McGinly
Cast: Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn

Those of you at least over 30 may remember The Amazing Kreskin. He was a mentalist who had appeared multiple times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as various other talk shows and even a few of his own such as the appropriately titled, The Amazing World of Kreskin.

Using Kreskin as a template, writer/director Sean McGinly crafted “The Great Buck Howard”. In the film, Colin Hanks is looking for his path in life and he quits law school in the hopes of finding it. He winds up becoming the tour manager for Buck Howard (John Malkovich), who by this time has achieved the status of nostalgic memory with some and washed up has-been with the rest. It is between his interactions with Howard and a beautiful public relations assistant (Emily Blunt) that Hanks is able, in formulaic film fashion, to chart his course for the future.

Let me just get my complaints out of the way at the start: I’m not a big Colin Hanks fan. I’ve never seen much spark from him on-screen (TV or film) and he doesn’t do much here in this project. At best, he’s a representation of the audience, reacting to the stronger personalities from Malkovich and Blunt. Usually, he just seems like a soggy piece of toast, ineffectually delivering barely inflected voice-overs and never able to rise to his co-star’s levels. Also, casting his real life father, Tom Hanks, as his movie father was a complete distraction. It may have been great fun for the two of them, but it detracts from the remarkable job that Malkovich does.

And when I say remarkable, this is truly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Malkovich – who rarely offers anything less than great on film. Everything Buck Howard does on stage, from an almost spoken word version of “What the World Needs Now” accompanied by his own piano work to hypnotizing audiences members to divining where his night’s salary has been hidden in the audience, comes off as sincere and in complete accordance with actual mentalists. Off stage, Malkovich takes the character to an even higher and complex level, shading him with a wide gamut of emotions and utilizing simple character traits like an over-exaggerated handshake to convey Howard’s approach to life.

Likewise, Emily Blunt is able to carve out her own little niche in the film as the woman assigned to help Buck Howard publicize a big effect (mentalist stunt) as part of a hopeful comeback for the almost forgotten performer. Blunt could have played the character as simple eye candy for Hanks and the audience but she provided a feisty and strong side to the role that gave it that third dimension. She doesn’t have enough focus in the script to be much more than a catalyst to Hanks’ metamorphosis, but on-screen Blunt becomes more than that regardless (and this isn’t solely because of my unrequited adoration of her).

“The Great Buck Howard” is an enjoyable afternoon distraction of a film, where Malkovich’s performance outshines nearly everything else and one should leave the theater feeling like they got most of their money’s worth. Hanks’ effort relegates the film to a 3 out of 5 but in its favor, the film made me pine for the great days of late night television, when Johnny Carson was that larger than life father figure to America, and I subsequently went online and viewed at least an hour of old clips, laughing nearly all that time. Doing so only makes the entire package bittersweet but I can say that I’m glad I took the time to see McGinly’s effort … which is more than I can say for many films so far this year.