Monday, August 03, 2009

The Great Buck Howard: Grade B

The Great Buck Howard (2008)
John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt. Writer-director Sean McGinly.

Malkovich plays such a perfect evil villain that it is a treat to see him play a comic role, although even here, there is a dark shadow over the character and the humor. He is an aging stage magician and mentalist, playing small audiences in towns like Bakersfield, Akron, and Cincinnati. He offers the same act he did 40 years ago on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, an achievement he tells to everyone he meets. But now he is old, crabby, and nobody cares. He hires a young assistant, Troy (Hanks, son of Tom) as his road manager. Troy treats Buck with respect, even recognizing he is a washup. Blunt is a publicity agent inserted into the story just to provide Hanks with a romantic interest. Her character does not do anything. She gives her best though, and reminds me of Juliet Lewis. And that’s it. There is no real character development, just characterizations, no real story, just a snapshot of these people at a moment in time. There are parallels to Mr. Saturday Night with Billy Crystal, but that film had a strong developmental arc. The stage magic is fun here but not explained and it is not the point of the story. I rate the movie well because I am a Malkovich fan, not because it is a tight movie.

The story is actually a quasi-biography of real stage magician “The Amazing Kreskin” who did appear on Johnny Carson’s show. It is not a close biography, just a “based on.” Still, it is well worth watching to see the Amazing John Malkovich exercise his craft, which is considerable. There are some very funny lines, many quite subtle, and tons of cameo appearances, including Tom Hanks, “The Stewarts” (Jon and Martha), John Goodman, Regis Philbin, and many others, demonstrating how well-connected Malkovich is. Caricatures of dingy small-theater venues are perfect, as are the overweight, ditzy women in charge of them. It’s not LOL comedy, but a definite tickler with a poignant streak.

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