Great Buck Howard, The: Sean McGinly Directs John Malkovich and Emily Blunt

Sundance Film Fest 2008–An eccentric, highly intelligent actor, John Malkovich elevates every film he is in, calling attention to his persona onscreen and off–sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Malkovich chooses carefully his roles, which tend to be diverse and demanding and jointly offer a mosaic of his skills and attributes as a unique performer.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the new comedy “The Great Buck Howard,” written and directed by Sean McGinly, without Malkovich playing the titular lead, Buck Howard, a man who had spent his days in the limelight but is now a has been, a status everyone but him recognizes.

The movie, produced by the company of Tom Hanks (who also appears in the picture) received its world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Fest, where it was greeted with mixed critical reaction. Over a year later, the film receives its theatrical release by Magnolia Pictures.

This is the second film from Sean McGinly, who made a decent feature debut with “Two Days.” His comedy belongs to a sub-genre of Hollywood pictures about showbiz (theater and film). This year, there are two other films about the industry at the Sundance Fest: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened” and “The Deal.” None of these three features is particularly clever or fresh in topic or style.

The premise of this comedy, about two seemingly disparate people, the mentalist Buck Howard and his long suffering assistant Troy, lends itself to witty, surreal treatment that the simplistic straightforward scenario doesn’t provide. Instead, what we get is a rather pedestrian feature about a path (a journey) taken by the two men, which becomes more entertaining due to the parade of hilarious characters, many of which are cameo roles by the likes of Griffin Dunne and Steve Zahn.

We quickly learn that Howard’s mind-boggling feats as a mentalist extraordinaire, a position he insists, should not be confused with those of a mere magician, earned him a marquee act in Vegas and no less than 61 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, though not once in the past decade.  In Howard’s subjective, distorted perception, his talents go far beyond simple sleight of hand; he can read minds and hypnotize an entire room of people.

Reality, however, is harsher and we realize that Buck and his act have lost their allure, and that he is now reduced to performing in faded, empty second-rate community centers, such as Akron, Ohio or Bakersfield, California. Yet, still ambitious and determined, he refuses to accept the present and continues to exclaim his trademark “I love this town!” Buck Howard representing the old American stock, a man who perseveres, confident in his own celeb status, and convinced that it’s only a matter of time before his big comeback. “All he needs,” he deludes himself is a new road manager and personal assistant.

Opportunity knocks, when a recent law school dropout and unemployed, would-be writer Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) needs a job–and a purpose in life.  Working for the pompous, has-been mentalist fills the former requirement, but how it satisfies the latter is questionable, especially to his father (Colin’s real-life father Tom Hanks), who still assumes Troy is in law school.

There’s also a femme fatale, the fiery and sexy publicist (Emily Blunt) who, helped by a bold stroke of fate, facilitates Howard’s landing back into the American consciousness, taking Troy along for the ride including a brief, indifferent sexual escapade.  In the process, Howard becomes an unlikely teacher, instructing Troy various tricks that he couldn’t have picked up in law school, or any school.

Unfortunately, the tale becomes predictable and soft as it unfolds on screen. As scribe, McGinly can’t conceal the blatant message of the story, the notion that it is never too late to reshape one’s life. Buck and Troy meet each other at a crucial time. While Buck is not Troy’s (or anyone’s) idea of creative success, but at least Buck has passion and commitment. Both men change: Buck strives to hit the big time again, landing Vegas gig and being a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and Troy learns that it’s possible to live life loving what you do, and sometimes even combine your vocation with avocation.

Stuck with the more conventional role, Colin Hanks, not a major talent by any standard, is just O.K.  His performance further suffers from the fact that McGinly’s script relies too heavily on Troy’s voice-over narration, which is often boring and unnecessary, because it doesn’t add much to the proceedings.  Nonetheless, Colin is serviceable to Malkovich in a great display of mischievous behavior, which benefits from his trademarks of lanky frame, blank or cynical look, velvety menacing voice, disturbing appearance, and effortless ability to mix humor, nastiness, risk and adventure often in the same sentence.

Unlike Colin Hank, Emilt Brunt is vibrant, considering she is given next to nothing to say or to do.  Quickly proving that she’s endlessly resourceful, she impresses with a few lines of dialogue.  When Troy dreams about a life that would make his heart race, Blunt coolly says: “This existentialist thing really turns me on.”

Reportedly, the project has personal origins. Like Troy, McGinly went to law school and quit soon after arriving. He then cashed out his student loan and moved to L.A., not knowing anyone in town. Holding a succession of minor Hollywood jobs, he met all kinds of strange characters that were on the fringes of the entertainment business.  Through his contacts, I assume, producer-star Hanks was able to recruit several celebs and TV personalities (some of them uncredited), such as Martha Stewart and Jon Stewart, and Jay Leno huimself, who’s a good sports to be the target of a funny gag.

The comedy benefits from above-average production values, courtesy of director of photography Tak Fujimoto, production designer Gary Frutkoff, costume designer Johnetta Boone, and editor Myron Kerstein.