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Overall Rating
3.9

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look95.24%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 4.76%
Sucks: 0%

3 reviews, 3 user ratings


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Great Buck Howard, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Coming Of Age, The John Malkovich Way"
4 stars

Although there is nothing I treasure more as a moviegoer than being able to settle down in a multiplex chair and experience stories that are filled with genuine surprises and sights and sounds that are completely new and unique, that does not necessarily mean that I am unable to appreciate something that isn’t especially fresh or innovative as long as it has been done correctly. Take “The Great Buck Howard,” for example--for all intents and purposes, it is another coming-of-age comedy-drama in which a callow and naïve young man learns the ways of the world, both good and bad, from a decidedly unlikely mentor and finds his life changed forever as a result. In other words, it is more or less thematically identical to any number of other movies of recent years (the above description could fit films as varied as “Rushmore,” “My Favorite Year” and “The Reader”) and contains virtually nothing that even the most forgiving viewer might refer to as original or surprising. And yet, the film throws just enough curve balls at the audience--the chief one being the top-notch cast led by the decidedly unlikely presence of the always-interesting John Malkovich in the role of the unlikely mentor--so that the entire enterprise, for the most part, comes across as fresher and more interesting that it really is.

The callow and naïve young man this time around is Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) and as the story opens, his dissatisfaction with his current life has just inspired him to drop out of law school and look for something else to do. In the newspaper, he comes across an ad for a job as a personal assistant and when he interviews for the position, he discovers that the job is to serve as the road manager for Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a once-popular magician and mentalist who still brags about his 60-odd appearances on “The Tonight Show”--the Johnny Carson version, of course. Although Buck’s capacity for self-delusion regarding his current status in the show business firmament rivals that of Norma Desmond and his performance schedule is limited to appearances in half-filled auditoriums in one small town after another, the man does know how to work a crowd--especially his legendary finale where he magically locates his entire performance fee after having it hidden somewhere in the audience--and Troy decides to sign on. After a while, Troy begins to tire of the grind--especially after an unexpected visit from his disappointed father (played, in a remarkable coincidence, by Tom Hanks)--and contemplates leaving until Buck reveals his plans for an amazing new trick that he believes will put him back on top. Troy decides to stick around, partly because of his growing affection for Buck and partly because of the appearance of Valerie (Emily Blunt), the sexy junior publicist sent by Buck’s P.R. firm to hype up the event.

Up until this point, “The Great Buck Howard” is a pleasant variation on a very familiar theme that also serves as a nostalgic celebration of a certain kind of dying show biz tradition that is rarely seen today outside of smaller theaters and the Jerry Lewis telethon. The early scenes in which we experience the full force of Buck’s imperious nature through Troy’s disbelieving eyes are pretty amusing and the stuff involving Buck’s big new trick builds well and has a very funny payoff. After that highlight, however, things begin to go downhill fairly fast as writer-director Sean McGinly begins to replace the tartness of those earlier moments for a more sentimental approach that grows less and less interesting as things go on. Further bogging things down are a series of subplots that are either unneeded (the romance that develops between Troy and the publicist), undeveloped (Troy’s out-of-nowhere desire to become a writer) or unlikely (great importance is put on an article about Buck that is scheduled to appear in “Entertainment Weekly,” as though that magazine would actually devote several pages to someone as minor league as him instead of using that space for another list of Top 50 this or that). Another problem is the fact that while his performance is perfectly fine throughout, Colin Hanks never really makes much of an impression in the central role of Troy--he is nice and charming as all get out but entirely forgettable To be fair, however, this can partially be explained by the fact that Hanks has already appeared in one vastly superior coming-of-age film (the hilarious and surprisingly smart “Orange County”) and partly because he is stuck playing the straight man role opposite a colorful supporting cast of characters and can’t help but come across as a little dull by comparison.

And it is the ability of that colorful supporting cast to overcome the sometimes shaky writing that in the end makes “The Great Buck Howard” worth watching--if not in the theater at full price, then at least on DVD or cable a few months down the line. Although her character does not have much of a reason to exist, Emily Blunt bumps up the energy level every time she comes on screen by the sheer force of her personality (not to mention the fact that I don’t think she has ever been sexier than she is here). The inimitable Ricky Jay turns up for a few scenes in a role that is best described as “the Ricky Jay” part. As a small-town fan whose attempts to show hospitality to his idol end in disaster, Steve Zahn is pretty hilarious and Tom Hanks manages to make a strong impression in his relatively brief appearances as Troy’s dad without overwhelming things with his superstar presence. (I will also assume that it was his position as co-producer that helped lure in the number of amusing cameo appearances strewn throughout, none of which I will spoil for you here.)

Of course, the best thing about the film is the great performance from John Malkovich in the title role. Granted, playing a vain, self-absorbed and supercilious monster is hardly a stretch of his acting muscles by any means but what he does that is so fascinating is that he plays the character without ever obviously trying to milk the role for pathos or sympathy at any point, which most actors might have tried at some point, and yet still manages to make him interesting an d compelling enough to follow no matter how monstrously he acts. It is a wonderful bit of acting from him--easily his best screen work since his turn in the tragically underseen “Ripley’s Game”--and while “The Great Buck Howard” may not quite live up to its name in the end, it is easy to forget that as long as he is center stage.

Of course, the best thing about the film is the great performance from John Malkovich in the title role. Granted, playing a vain, self-absorbed and supercilious monster is hardly a stretch of his acting muscles by any means but what he does that is so fascinating is that he plays the character without ever obviously trying to milk the role for pathos or sympathy at any point, which most actors might have tried at some point, and yet still manages to make him interesting an d compelling enough to follow no matter how monstrously he acts. It is a wonderful bit of acting from him--easily his best screen work since his turn in the tragically underseen “Ripley’s Game”--and while “The Great Buck Howard” may not quite live up to its name in the end, it is easy to forget that as long as he is center stage.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16921&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/20/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/04/09 PAUL SHORTT A SWEET, TENDER, SLIGHTLY SATIRICAL SLICE OF SHOWBIZ LIFE 4 stars
7/17/08 Vickie Couturier I liked it myself,it was the type of movie I enjoy 4 stars
7/16/08 Eloise Carlson Weird movie, very hard to understand. 2 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  20-Mar-2009 (PG)
  DVD: 21-Jul-2009

UK
  N/A

Australia
  20-Mar-2009
  DVD: 21-Jul-2009


Directed by
  Sean McGinly

Written by
  Sean McGinly

Cast
  Colin Hanks
  John Malkovich
  Emily Blunt
  Tom Hanks
  Steve Zahn



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