Hello kids. Hans back with another dose of Below Radar hoosafudge. Just to let you know, I’m changing the format of this series up a little bit. Instead of examining films of the past in light of events of the present, I will look at some of the lesser known films hitting arthouse screens, one of which is today’s subject, The Great Buck Howard. Review, commence:
There is much made throughout The Great Buck Howard of the final trick that is done in the title character’s act. Buck Howard is a mentalist, not a magician, mind you, who specializes in performing seemingly hypnotic tricks on his audiences. In his final trick, he gives the audience his performance fee and steps offstage while they hide it amongst themselves. When he ventures out among them, he is always able to find the money no matter what. How does he do it? Some doubters think that he has an earpiece and a plant in the audience who tells him the money’s whereabouts. There is no evidence to support that, and Howard’s brilliance seems to be legitimate.
The Great Buck Howard wants you to ponder this question with as much fascination as the characters do. I didn’t care much. Buck Howard’s stage act is portrayed as whimsical and joyful, but the film isn’t interested in sharing those qualities. It is more interested in the offstage histrionics of Howard, played by John Malkovich as both an overly folksy man-of-the-people and a petulant, fading celebrity, always complaining about the lack of press at an event or the lack of interest from Las Vegas about a possible performance.
I’ve seen this character before, and Malkovich, always such a great presence, doesn’t know how to take him in a different direction. Movies about fading celebrity are never very interesting because they all run together; the characters always wind up complaining about the same things. Howard is no exception, and the film, written and directed by Sean McGinley, squanders the joyous, graceful stage presence that we see by dealing instead with his childish alter-ego.
Not that Howard is even the focus of the story, anyway. Nope, the focus is on Troy (Colin Hanks), his road manager who has just dropped out of law school, wants to be a writer, but also wants to pay his bills and picks the Howard gig out of the classifieds. I have seldom encountered a more bland character than Troy. His arc has been played out in a hundred other movies and I’m not sure why writers and directors keep returning to him as a focus. Probably because no one personifies their own insecurity and ambivalence better than he does.
Troy becomes Howard’s handler, which consists of carrying luggage, planning trips, arranging press, and listening to him piss and moan about his fading celebrity. Howard has been on The Tonight Show 61 times, but has now been relegated to playing half-full auditoriums in towns like Akron and Bakersfield. None of his old celebrity friends want anything to do with him. Even George Takei, who played Sulu on, what Howard calls, “the Star Trek,” has jumped ship.
Most of the film takes place on the road, with Howard moving from obscure town to obscure town hoping to reinvigorate his fading career. In Cincinnatti, he vows to perform a new feat where he will put 800 people to sleep at the same time. Though he succeeds, all of the press scurry off to cover a Jerry Springer traffic accident. Dejected, Howard has to be talked into drawing the people out of their slumber.
There is a lot of potentially great stuff in this movie, but the problem that I had with it is similar to the one I had with Man on the Moon; while we are watching the story of a great sleight of hand performer, the film is imbued with none of his spirit or energy. The best scenes in the film deal with Howard in his stage act, jovial, accessible, and genuinely talented. It would have been better to see this personality bleed into the character we see offstage. While Malkovich clearly understands this guy (maybe a little too well), we lose any sympathy for him simply because he is whiny and cruel through most of the movie. This character needed to be lovable.
The existence of the Troy character doesn’t help matters much. Colin Hanks is a talented actor, but he simply has no where to go with this guy. Troy says he wants to be a writer, but we don’t see him do a single creative thing in the film or express any real passion for it. When he strikes up a romance with a cute publicist (Emily Blunt), he behaves with such apathy that it is hard to believe he has any real feelings for her. When his angry dad (Tom Hanks, yes, Tom Hanks is in this movie, with his son, Colin Hanks) shows up to berate him for dropping out of school, we are kind of with the dad character–it would probably be more productive to go back to school than wandering around the armpit of the country listening to an aging has-been bitch about the size of his hotel room.
Let me backtrack for a moment. Tom Hanks is in this movie. His company, Play Tone, which also did John Adams, produced it, which is why it looks like it has some money behind it. Hanks has two scenes where he gets to play the angry dad. I don’t think I have ever seen him play such a standard, one-dimensional, one-purpose character, and I hope I never do again. It really made my heart hit the depths to see him used this way. It is nice to finally see him share a scene with his son, who I am a big fan of but simply needs to find another character to play. I’m glad they got doing a movie together out of their system.