Posted on 23 March 2009.
When a person or thing has “great” as part of its title, expectations for said item grow exponentially. Basketball superstar LeBron James is nicknamed “King,” and his play on the court has backed up the moniker. In contrast, The Great Buck Howard is a film that crumbles under the weight of its name. John Malkovich stars as the titular Buck Howard with the “great” portion of his identification added years ago by talk show host Johnny Carson years ago. Howard is a mentalist, a magician of sorts, who made 61 appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show” back in the day. He hopes to regain the fame that has eluded him of late, aiming to do Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and possibly a regular gig in Vegas.
Howard’s career is caught between his being a “has been” and “can still be.” He needs help to make his career work. Enter Colin Hanks, who is on board as Troy Gable. Troy has been bred to be a lawyer, pushed and prodded in that direction by his father his entire life, but he doesn’t see that as the life for him. He drops out of law school and moves to LA to pursue writing, taking a gig as Howard’s road manager to pay the rent. Howard, who is a decade removed from any sort of celebrity relevance, travels the country playing small venues in his variety act, with Troy handling minor assistant duties.
While Buck’s act entertains simpletons in half-empty auditoriums, the story really centers on Troy’s “growth,” of which we see little. On the road he encounters Valerie (Emily Blunt), a publicist in Cincinnati who is trying to assist Howard in getting a crowd for a special trick he plans to perform which could catapult him back into the limelight. A needless love story sidetracks us. Through no rhyme or reason, yet being telegraphed a mile away, the duo fall into a sexual relationship during Troy’s brief stay in the city. They lack any sort of palpable chemistry, despite Blunt’s considerably quirky efforts.
Gotta get the cash, gotta get the dough.
While Malkovich embodies Howard’s self-important diva behavior, I didn’t sense the desperation for a return to stardom that was supposed to be evident in his character. He does his usual yeoman’s work but didn’t elevate his game for a starring role, hitting the big notes but not the subtle ones that could have propelled the film further. Hanks doesn’t help much. While he has little to work with, he also doesn’t flesh any emotion out of Troy’s (and his, perhaps) opportunity to come of age.
Sean McGinly writes and directs, sans flair. His other credits include, well, nothing of any note. There is very little in the way of amusement (I failed to so much as smile), the direction lacks any sort of panache (I was not wowed) and the script is too straight-forward (for this type of film, a veering off-course would have been welcome). It is mostly a fable on how fame is fleeting and difficult to maintain with myopia running rampant in the mind of the fallen star, but it’s also a parable about finding what it is you want to do and living out your dreams. While the message is honorable, it has been done better in countless films.
Colin’s real-life father, Tom Hanks (yes, him), makes a small appearance in two scenes as his father here as well, but he ultimately provides little punch to a largely listless film. Guest shots from the respected Steve Zahn and Ricky Jay don’t provide the wallop we would hope. Stints with several real-life talk show hosts during Howard’s career renaissance (or is it?) conclude in a “too little, too late” sort of wrap to the proceedings.
Part of the “magic” in the story is Troy’s belief that Buck’s most well-known trick, finding his cash payment hidden in the audience at the end of each live performance, is somehow real. While it is never proven how the trick is accomplished, a better trick would have been to add some excitement to this boring affair. This is one film where I would advise you to save your “bucks,” since Buck Howard, as a prominent magazine article declares in the film, is “not so” great.