A film review by Craig J. Koban August 13, 2009

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD jjj

2009, PG, 89 mins.

 

Buck: John Malkovich / Troy: Colin Hanks / Valerie: Emily Blunt / Jonathan: Griffin Dunne / Local: Steve Zahn / Gil: Ricky Jay

Written and directed by Sean McGinly

I have vague of memories about The Amazing Kreskin’s multiple appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  

For the completely uninitiated, Kreskin was a self-described “mentalist”…and not a magician (which is a dirty descriptor in his mind).  He became incredibly popular during his heyday on television during the 1970’s and 1980’s by appearing on Carson’s NBC variety show 56 – yes, no fooling56 times and would later follow his run with that show by appearing several times on Late Night with David Letterman.  He has always gone out of his way to debunk claims that he has paranormal or clairvoyant powers and despises being lumped in with petty psychics.  

One his tricks impresses even the staunch skeptic in me, which nearly leads me to believe that he has otherworldly abilities: He tells the audience that he will find a paycheck for his performance that has been secretly hidden by an audience member while he is off stage and under watch by a few random members of the same audience.  Astoundingly, Kreskin was miraculously able to find his salary almost every time.  He has failed only nine times in his entire career.  Amazing, indeed.

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD is part dramedy, part biopic that is loosely based on the stage performances and backstage life of Kreskin, which in turn is based on the experiences the film’s writer/director, Sean McGinly, who worked briefly with Kreskin as a road manager.  Despite the name change of the main character in the film as well as some obvious narrative alterations for the sake of dramatic license, “The Great” Buck Howard is essentially “The Amazing” Kreskin, and the film makes no qualms about hiding this notion.  

McGinly’s film is a moderately enjoyable success for the way it appeases two audience sensibilities: (a) those that are into nostalgic, laid-back biopics with splashes of both comedy and pathos and (b) those that like celebrity satires about how one’s own delusional sense of grandeur and importance is often at direct odds with reality.  Buck Howard is the epitome of a once famous, now horrendously washed up celebrity that depressingly carries on and continues his lackluster career even when he is now seen as yesterday’s news.  The darker core of the film is that this is a figure that still thinks that he is the center of the limelight and attention when, in actuality, he is a strung out, B-grade act that should have died a quiet death decades earlier.  On a more positive and upbeat note, THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD reinforces an inspiring message that, no matter what the odds, one should continue what they do because of their intangible love for it.   

Howard in the film is played in a rancorous – but deliciously uproarious – performance by the great John Malkovich, whose work here is a very difficult bit of sleight of hand: On one level he plays the Howard of stage legend, where he exudes a sort of confidence and calm-spoken bluster that so many countless audience members over the decades have appreciated.  On the other token, Malkovich also has to embody the back-stage Howard that has a wickedly sarcastic temper and a tempestuous hostility for those that have worked for him that he felt were not contributing all that they could for the sake of his craft.  At times, Howard can be a disarming and gentle spirit with fans, but when they are not in the vicinity he has an acidic tongue that lashes out at his aids with a level of soul-crushing, teeth clenched verbal abuse that hints at the man’s deeper insecurities within himself.  It is a very tricky performance to pull off effectively: too much hostile, camera mugging hysterics and the character would come off as indefensibly vile, whereas too much of a sentimental polish would have made Howard too easily likeable.  Thankfully, Malkovich is just the right thespian trickster to make this character work.

We see Howard through the eyes of his personal assistant, Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks, son of Tom, and a wonderfully understated actor) and he initially sees Howard as a major player in the entertainment industry.  However, the more Gabel works for the man the more he begins to realize that this aging performer is a grade-A heel and an unquestionable has-been.  Howard did The Tonight Show dozens of times, but has not been back in years.  Now, he is reduced to doing remorselessly cheesy live shows that play to half-full auditoriums in towns that most lay Americans have never even heard of...but at least Akron, Ohio still worships this man with a fiery passion, even if the audience members are largely made up of old, cultural philistines.  Yet, not matter how small and embarrassing the venue, Buck still insists on putting on a shows worthy of his inflated egomaniacal image and sense of stature.  Even when the mentalist himself understands that playing to small crowds is in no way a return to the glory years on national TV, he still commits himself with the gusto and dedication of a true performer: “I Love this town,” he enthusiastically screams to his audiences at every venue.  That type of cordial feistiness and respect for his aficionados is to be commended. 

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD maintains an interesting two-prone focus: On one hand the film looks at the Gabel character, a recent law school drop-out and a young man that has no solid career aspirations that yearns for some sort of spark to enter his life to lead him on the right path.  The other end the film hones in on Howard, who has had a life and once promising career that is now in literal ruins; he too is also looking for a big, new break.  In many ways, the two characters are mutually reciprocal entities: they are both on paths of discovery and both, in many ways, need the other to help act as a catalysts for a new lease on life.   Along the way, Gabel certainly becomes the character that is the most abused: he has to frequently deal with all of Howard’s zealot-like demands and constant barrage of personal insults and childlike tantrums (like, for example: don’t ever, ever let anyone introduce him on stage before his show - a big no-no - and don’t ever be without signed color portraits to give to his fans either).  To assist Gabel on his tough and tumultuous journey as Howard’s aid is a pretty and assured PR gal from Cincinnati named Valerie (played by the incredibly fetching and spirited Emily Blunt), who tries to take Howard’s damaged and worn-out image and renew it for modern consumption.  In a highly ironic move, a botched performance stunt by Howard has the unintentional effect of placing him back on the celebrity A-list radar. 

On its intended comedic levels, BUCK HOWARD is very amusing at times and often at the expense of the main character’s galactic vanity and ignorance.  Part of the film’s easy-going charm is how narrow-minded and uninformed Howard is because, when it comes right down to it, his mammoth narcissism clouds his sense of time and place.  One of the film’s funniest exchanges occurs when Gabel instructs Howard that an Internet blogger has come to interview him, to which he hilariously and incredulously retorts, “I’m not familiar with that publication!”  He also has another hysterical moment while on Late Night with Conan O’Brien during the latter stages of his career rejuvenation, which leads to him embarrassingly thanking the talk show host by calling him “Colin.”  Howard’s venomous rage is also the source of some infectious hilarity, as occurs when he realizes that Jay Leno has bumped him from appearing on the Tonight Show because he spent too much time chatting with…Tom Arnold.  “Johnny would never bump me, “ he screams to one of the show’s producers, “Leno is Satan and the Great Buck Howard does not do shows for Satan!” 

On a dramatic level, THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD does reveal the subtle greatness of the man by showcasing how terrific he was with some of his feats.  His ability to astound his audiences, especially with his aforementioned money finding trick, is certainly amazing, which helps to elevate Howard above the veneer of a raving lunatic.  He is a talented performer and has a real stage presence.  He certainly elicits a level of awe from Gabel himself (I mean, how does he find that money?).  To a successful degree, BUCK HOWARD is both amusing and perceptive in its portrait of this flawed figure: Howard is a self-delusional lizard of a man that treats his assistants like cattle and is too blind to see that his popularity is all but eroded, but he nonetheless perseveres and gives a good show, seeing as the show must…well…you know. 

The film is Malkovich’s through and through, as he utterly infuses himself in this warped, deranged, but talented personality.  What he does so resolutely is to hint at the buried frustrations that are hidden on the inside of this man while showing his more notable and outward vindictiveness.  He is both a performer that has a deeply rooted sense of confidence in himself and his abilities to give every performance a polish and panache, but he simultaneously shows Howard as a deeply insecure man that has to deal with the insurmountable reality that he simply at the winter of his career.  Malkovich may be the only actor to harness Howard’s antagonistic aggression, his proud professionalism, and his troublesome insecurities, which helps elevate him beyond a stereotypical prima dona celebrity character without a hint of sympathy.  Colin Hanks acts as a very effective foil to the theatricality of Malkovich’s turn, playing his role of Gabel with an underplayed, straight-laced earnestness (he has a few good scenes with his real life dad, Tom Hanks, who plays Gabel’s concerned father).  Emily Blunt has the toughest assignment of all the actors because she has to take on the dime-a-dozen role of the PR publicist that is terribly underwritten and gives the part a natural effervescence.  She does a considerable amount with nothing

If there were one large complaint I would levy against THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD then it would be that it is far from great at being secure with a cohesive tone.  The film has a lightness and congeniality to it (which is welcome) as well as dealing with more solemn themes of a tabloid-obsessed celebrity culture that tries to forget past successes like Howard while those same performers clamor for a seemingly impossible chance to make it big again.  There are times when the themes have an edge to them, but perhaps not enough bite; the film sometimes soft-pedals its material when I think it wants to be more scathing and incendiary.   THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD engages in too much freewheeling, Capra-esque hero worship of its main character, not to mention that it too easily and naively exudes a virtue of “no matter how bad things get, all one needs to do is believe in themselves.”  No matter, because these are minor quibbles with this affectionate comedy.  On a positive, it goes against the grain by being a show business satire with a warm heart and a kinder disposition.  The film has an infectious exuberance with itself, much like Howard has with himself, which seems highly fitting.

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