A film review by Craig J. Koban August 13, 2009
THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD
2009, PG, 89 mins.
2009, PG, 89 mins.
Buck: John Malkovich / Troy: Colin Hanks / Valerie: Emily
Blunt / Jonathan: Griffin Dunne / Local: Steve Zahn / Gil:
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 fooling – 56 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
Kreskin was miraculously able to find his salary almost every time. He
has failed only nine times in his entire career.
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
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
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
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.