Related Articles: Movies, All

The Great Buck Howard

Slight Satire

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Written and directed by Sean McGinly, The Great Buck Howard, is a satirical show business comedy loosely based on McGinly’s experiences as the road manager to the Amazing Kreskin, a once-famous, still-active mentalist. Featuring a likeable, if passive, central performance by Colin Hanks and an eccentric performance by the eccentric John Malkovich, The Great Buck Howard makes for light entertainment, enjoyable enough during its running time, but forgettable minutes after the end credits roll. For some moviegoers, that might be enough (especially if you’re a fan of either actor). For other moviegoers, it probably won’t be.

A law-school dropout with vague aspirations to become a writer, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) finds work as the road manager for the “Great Buck Howard” (John Malkovich), a once-popular, once-famous mentalist who, as he constantly reminds Gable and anyone he meets, appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" 61 times. What Howard hesitates to admit, however, is that he’s never appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Carson’s successor Jay Leno. As a point man for Howard’s fossilized act, Gable criss-crosses the country’s lesser known cities and towns. Each time, Gable watches from the wings as Howard impresses small and large audiences with his mental feats, including the show’s capper, where Howard finds his night’s earnings after an audience member has hidden it.

But the recalcitrant, inflexible Howard initially refuses to modernize his act or admit that popular taste has little room or interest for an act created more than fifty years ago. Eventually, however, Howard decides to add a new “effect” (mentalists don’t care for the word “trick”) to his act: he’ll break the world record for putting the largest number of audience members to sleep. Howard picks Cincinnati as the city where he’ll unveil his act and sends for his longtime publicist to help. Instead, the publicity firm sends a younger, not-so-eager publicist, Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt). Gable and Valerie hit it off, leaving the attention-starved Howard unhappy. Events eventually conspire to give Howard a second chance at fame, but not in the way he initially anticipated.

Taking his cues from the plethora of “write what you know” screenwriting instruction manuals, McGinley drew on his experiences as an assistant to the Amazing Kreskin in creating the Gable character. As a central character, Gable’s on the well-worn, well-trod path toward self-discovery. Unfortunately, McGinley wrote Gable as a passive character, an observer who, through ubiquitous, redundant voiceover narration, comments on his occasionally farcical experiences. While McGinley deserves credit for injecting Gable’s voice-over narration with numerous jokes, it’s clear that McGinley couldn’t (or, to be fair, didn’t) want to write an active character. Instead, that role falls to Howard, a washed up performer, a legend in his own mind (and no one else’s).

On the plus side, McGinley picked John Malkovich to essay the egotistical, delusional, obnoxious, but strangely compelling Howard. Rarely, if ever, a subtle performer, Malkovich uses his penchant for overbroad characterizations and idiosyncratic verbal and physical tics to create a flawed, but no less sympathetic character, a character living in a constant state of denial who, for better or worse, has analogues in the real world, and lives off the effluvia of fame. Colin Hanks does what he can with an underwritten role, but it’s Emily Blunt as the brusque publicist who gives the more memorable performance.

To keep the satire going, McGinly included cameos by a semi-impressive group of B-,
C-, and D-listers and television personalities (e.g. George Takei, Tom Arnold, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Martha Stewart, Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa) and well-known actors in supporting roles (Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne). He even gives magician Ricky Jay a supporting role as the Great Buck Howard’s agent. Oh and Tom Hanks, one of The Great Buck Howard’s producers and Colin’s father, steps in for two non-key scenes as Gable’s father.