Understated comedy goes all mushy and soft in The Great Buck Howard, a movie built on a strong cast with a not-quite-as-strong script that nonetheless didn’t get nearly the amount of respect it deserved at the box office.
Troy (Colin Hanks) is under pressure from his dad (Tom Hanks) to finish law school, but Troy’s got dreams, see. Big dreams. He wants to be a writer. So he dumps law school and moves out to California only to find that writing doesn’t pay the bills. And that’s how he ends up landing a job as an assistant to the great Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a mentalist (based on the Amazing Kreskin) who used to be huge with 61 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And even though his act is a little corny for today’s audiences, he still draws a small crowd. And he always leaves them amazed by ending with a bit in which Buck’s fee is hidden somewhere in the auditorium and if he can’t find it, he doesn’t get paid. In over 5,000 performances, he’s always found the money.
Besides being a strong performer, Buck can also be an ego-centric jerk, no doubt a souring that took place as his star has faded over the years and that “nitwit” that runs The Tonight Show (referencing Jay Leno, of course) wouldn’t return his calls. Troy finds the work pretty frustrating, with Buck pulling small town diva tantrums every night, but he is fascinated by how Buck always has a way with a crowd.
While Troy struggles with what he wants versus what his father wants, he meets sassy publicist Valerie (Emily Blunt) whose job it is to get all eyes on Buck as he unveils the trick – no, “effect” as his original assistant corrects an interviewer – that will put him back on the map. The ordeal that follows brings the idea of choosing quality of life over quantity of money into focus for Troy. Would any of this happened had he not chosen his own path? Maybe there really is… magic in the world? Yes, it gets that sappy and without good reason. There is a satirical edge to the story that both makes fun of and loves on the idea of celebrity at all its many levels but unfortunately it just doesn’t make it all the way to the end.
Howard is a movie of small surprises, probably the biggest of which is that it’s surprising at all. Having barely seen the light of day in theaters, folks would be forgiven for assuming this was some direct-to-DVD dog. But happily, that is not the case. Malkovich totally nails Buck, really pulling his acting cap down over his ears and giving his best performance since Ripley’s Game. Colin Hanks, while likable and solid, doesn’t quite match up to what Malkovich is throwing out there, though that may be more a fault of the script than of Hanks’ choices. Blunt’s Valerie seems to be more the match for Buck that Troy should be, which makes the third act climax, already trite and feel-goody in a way that seems tacked on, go way too soft.
But that is forgivable in light of all that came before. There is strong work here on every level and even if the ending isn’t all it could be, you could do a lot worse than to spend a couple hours with this one.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic and the whole thing is a beautiful soft-toned work. Tak Fujimoto mangaes to make even the clashy colors of Buck’s suits look good. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 and both are crystal clear.
Commentary with Sean McGinly and Colin Hanks – A standard commentary, mostly the director and actor talking about what’s happening on screen, though nicely balanced with audio from the movie cutting in for punchlines.
Deleted Scenes – This material isn’t bad, but nothing that was really missing from the movie. (3:03)
Extended Scenes – Mostly the longer cuts of Buck’s appearances on Martha Stewart, Regis & Kelly, The Daily Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Total Request Live. (9:45)
Outtakes – Several are good, but be sure to watch Tom Arnold riffing on why his Tonight Show segment went long. (3:40)
Behind The Scenes – Ten minutes of fluff that proves all of these people just loved working for each other and it was just the best experience.(9:36)
HD Net: A Look at The Great Buck Howard – Standard press package for the movie.(4:27)
The Amazing Kreskin – Why wasn’t this longer? A sit down interview with The Amazing Kreskin, recapping some of his feats and his time working with director McGinly.(5:47)
The Great Buck Howard is well worth the rental – just be ready for that cringe-worthy conclusion.
Magnolia Home Entertainment presents The Great Buck Howard. Directed by: Sean McGinly. Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn. Written by: Sean McGinly. Running time: 90min. Rating: PG. Released on DVD: July 21, 2009. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: Emily Blunt, John Malkovich, Steve Zahn, Tom Hanks