Friday, March 20, 2009

The Great Buck Howard: Not so great

The Great Buck Howard (2008) • View trailer for The Great Buck Howard
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity and a fleeting drug reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.09
Buy DVD: The Great Buck Howard • Buy Blu-Ray: The Great Buck Howard [Blu-ray]

Indie films come in a wild variety of flavors; that's what makes them so interesting. You simply never know what to expect.

Some are ultra-low-budget guerrilla productions, fueled by little more than raw determination and funded by maxed-out credit cards; El Mariachi and The Blair Witch Project would fit into this group. Regardless of the quality of the finished product, you can't help admiring the audacity of all involved, and the fact that their films got made and released at all.
Troy (Colin Hanks, center left) watches with interest as fading stage mentalist
Buck Howard (John Malkovich, center) checks his TV coverage with his agent,
Gil (Ricky Jay), to see whether he might have a chance to claw his way back
into the big time.

Others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, possess the better funding and A-list stars that we'd often expect from a Hollywood studio production. The only real difference seems to be the comparative modesty of the project itself: a generally quiet script and concept that lack the juice liable to attract enough attention in the cinema marketplace.

The Great Buck Howard belongs to the latter group. Once upon a time, this would have been a B-film perched at the bottom half of a double-feature: an opportunity for name talent to try something a little different.

Sean McGinly's little film is impressively mounted, with top-drawer production values. The opening credits sequence is extremely clever: an early indication that a lot of care and love went into what we're about to watch.

Unfortunately, despite its poignant premise, McGinly's film is very, very slow, his directorial hand so gently employed that he risks putting audiences to sleep just as effectively as the title character's hypnotism act. Even when people get annoyed with each other here, they do so placidly, as if everybody had popped a few Valiums before hitting the set each day.

Our young protagonist, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), is introduced as he bolts from law school, finally compelled to act on the conviction that he'd never be happy as a lawyer. With vague ideas of becoming a writer, but aware of the need for a steady paycheck in the meanwhile, Troy accepts the obviously questionable position of dogsbody for fading mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich).

Although something of a celebrity back in the day  Buck repeatedly boasts that he appeared 61 times on TV's The Tonight Show, when Johnny Carson was host  the limelight has dimmed. These days, Buck is reduced to playing dilapidated theaters in cities such as Bakersfield and Akron, Ohio: the stage mentalism equivalent of old-time stand-up comics who once prowled the Borscht Belt.

Oddly enough, though, Buck doesn't seem to mind. He genuinely enjoys interacting with a sparse audience primarily composed of post-retirement fans; they, in turn, tolerate the sidebar portions of his act, as when he sits at the piano, every evening, to croon a wincingly awful rendition of "What the World Needs Now Is Love."

The sad irony is that the mentalism portions of Buck's act remain just as impressive as they ever were. The mind-reading routines may be corny, but they're effective, and Buck always kills with his final signature stunt: an unerring ability to find his cash payment, hidden somewhere within the auditorium while he's under guard in his dressing room.

Offstage, though, Buck is a demanding taskmaster: an anal-retentive pain in the tuches who browbeats everybody within range, most particularly poor, long-suffering Troy. Buck finds a new target  publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt, pleasantly perky)  when they reach Cincinnati, Ohio, the scheduled site of a new mentalism effect that he's certain will put him back on top of the heap.

Reflexively dismissing Valerie as much too young for the job, Buck fobs her off on Troy ... who, naturally, falls for her. (This is Emily Blunt we're talking about; who wouldn't?)

Although occasionally punctuated by evidence of Buck's actual mentalism talents, McGinly's film mostly involves the dynamic between its main characters, and the random encounters they have with fans, hangers-on and skeptical media types. McGinly has an unerring sense of the behavior and dialogue of these inhabitants of small and/or working-class American towns and cities; while he clearly presents them as a giggle, the humor is more affectionate than cruel.

Steve Zahn is a hoot as Kenny, a hayseed limo driver who'd rather crane his neck to chat with Buck than watch the road; Debra Monk is teeth-grittingly credible as Kenny's pushy sister, who horrifies everybody by singing an introduction to Buck prior to one of his shows.

In a novel bit of stunt casting, Tom Hanks (whose Playtone production company co-financed the film) pops up as Troy's father, disheartened over his son's refusal to return to law school. This chat has the authentic feel of an uncomfortable father/son confrontation, which I guess is understandable.

The film's conclusion is oddly poignant  an acknowledgment that magic does exist, and an ode to a passing part of the entertainment scene  but the outcome of Buck's life and career really aren't the issue here. Buck is merely a catalyst designed to help Troy find himself, and it's difficult to argue that this young man ever has an epiphany; Colin Hanks' performance just doesn't change that much.

As revealed by a closing credit crawl, McGinly intends this film as an affectionate homage to real-world stage mentalist The Amazing Kreskin, who actually pioneered  and remains famous for  his "find the paycheck" stunt. His six-decade career shows no sign of stopping, and I'm sure a great biographical film could be made about him.

And it'd probably be better than the half-hearted coming-of-age tale that McGinley tries to tell here, but doesn't quite bring off.

No comments:

Post a Comment