Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Movie Review: The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard (2008/9)
Director - Sean McGinly

John Malkovich – Buck Howard
Colin Hanks – Troy Gable
Emily Blunt – Valerie Brennan

The Great Buck Howard is a film told through the eyes and voice of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a young man heavily pressured by his father to become a lawyer, though it is clear from the start that such a conventional career path is not in the cards. Troy answers a job ad and finds himself face-to-face with “The Great Buck Howard” (John Malkovich) the famed ‘mentalist’ and magician who is well past his prime. Still, Buck Howard is doing his thing, playing to small, but enthusiastic crowds of people in small towns around America, and he needs a new assistant. This is where the story begins.

Malkovich immerses himself into the role of the once-great man who feverishly announces just how much “I love this town!” and “I love these people!” at each and every show. The man himself is never really revealed to us, as we move through this film as an observer, but we do care for him, and we do feel for him. Howard, as we come to learn, appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johhny Carson” dozens of times, but was never called once in the 10 year run up to Carson’ retirement. He never really understood why and we never really know either, but we can guess that it is simply a changing of the guard. The acting here is superb and each person who moves in and out of Howard’s life is subject to a potential thrashing with the tongue, as only Malkovich can do. Whether it is the wrong type of water or the wrong reporters being present, Buck wants things his way or it’s the highway.

All this talk of a past-his-prime role might lead one to think of last year’s gem, The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke beautifully portrays a star wrestler past his prime, playing to small crowds and living a meager life. But it would be unfair to compare these two roles, since we don’t see Buck as a man worn down through time, rather we see a man who is eccentrically happy with his life and career. Sure there are moments of self-reflection in which we genuinely feel that Buck wants to be back on top, but at what cost? A hinge point in the film takes place when, after completing an astounding feat that is to be the big leap to his comeback, Buck finds himself back In Las Vegas, a town he used to play on his own quirky terms. With young gun producers making changes and controlling the routine, we finally see Buck struggle to pull off his most famous money shot trick. But did he really struggle?

Eventually Troy must move on from his job as assistant, but he revisits Buck at one of the many venues he spent so much time at over his career with the aging great showman, and in these final moments we are left with questions that will never be answered about this man or his trade, but ultimately we are left with a smile from ear-to-ear as we realize we are watching a man who does what he does because it is who he is, and that is not often easy to find.

**** out of 5

Clarification of my new rating system moving forward on all reviews:
* = Unwatchable and completely absurd/terrible/stay away/do not watch
** = Not very good. Maybe a stretch or two with some worthwhile moments, but overall trash
*** = Passable. Average. You might say you liked it or kind of liked it.
**** = Ok, now we’re talking. Script and acting in place and the movie does not fail
***** = Must see. All around great film.

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