The Great Buck Howard (Magnolia Pictures, PG)

greatbuckhoward-header.jpgThis movie is sort of like Buck’s stage act, which his audience enjoys precisely because they know it will never really surprise them.

 

 

 

 

 

A certain capacity for self-deception, and the ability to refuse to acknowledge what is obvious to everyone around you, are prerequisites for a career in show business. Humiliation and failure are part of the game, and there will always be plenty of people ready to write your creative obituary. Yet you’ve got to keep asserting your vision of yourself as popular and successful, because the next show, or the next manuscript, could be your big break.

The Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich) takes this philosophy to the extreme. He’s still big, it’s the shows that got small, and he insists everyone treat him as a major star although instead of Vegas and the Carson show he’s now playing community halls in third-tier cities to audiences old enough to remember when Johnny Carson was the new kid on the block. Buck does a sort of variety show on stage: some sleight-of-hand, a few mentalist tricks (or effects, as he calls them: things like guessing what number an audience member has written on a piece of paper), a little hypnotism, and a few songs.

The finale of every show is taken straight from The Amazing Kreskin: Buck has an audience member hide his evening’s fee, while he is chaperoned out of the room by two audience members. Then he returns and finds where the money is hidden, apparently using only his cold-reading skills (or his mind-reading ability, if you prefer). How he accomplishes this feat is never established: maybe he has a confederate and a concealed earpiece, or maybe it really is magic.

Serving as the road manager for a declining stage act is the sort of job only someone new to the business would consider. Enter Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a recent law school dropout who vaguely thinks he’d like to write, much to the disapproval of his father (played by his real-life dad, Tom Hanks). They are joined in Cincinnati by New York publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt), enlisted to drum up media coverage of Howard’s big stunt, which he hopes will get him back onto the A-list of entertainers: simultaneously hypnotizing 300 people.

Too bad for Buck that Jerry Springer was in a minor traffic accident just as his mass hypnosis session was underway: the local media deserts him for their former mayor, and Buck has an apparent heart attack which threatens to bring his story to a rapid conclusion. But the fickle goddess Fame has a wicked sense of humor, and television coverage of his collapse fuels the comeback opportunity Buck has been hoping for. Although, as your mother no doubt counseled you, you should be careful what you hope for because you just might get it.

Given how conventional and formulaic The Great Buck Howard is, it’s a wonder that it works as well as it does. This movie is sort of like Buck’s stage act, which his audience enjoys precisely because they know it will never really surprise them. John Malkovich creates a three-dimensional character out of a role which could have been played for laughs, and Emily Blunt is enchanting in her minor role. Unfortunately, Colin Hanks’ character remains largely a cipher, despite the fact that he’s the one telling the story. | Sarah Boslaugh

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