Being John Malkovich has never looked like this much fun. The actor delivers one of the most entertaining and deceptively complex performances of his career in writer-director Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard, the story of an old-school mentalist oblivious to the fact that he’s a relic of a bygone show-biz era.
Early on, law-school drop-out Troy (Colin Hanks) is hired by Howard’s manager (played by the great Ricky Jay) to serve as the performer’s personal assistant and road manager. The movie unfolds from Troy’s perspective — which makes sense, as the screenplay is based on McGinly’s own experiences as road manager for The Amazing Kreskin, a real-life relic of a bygone show-biz era.
The first meeting between the two sets the film’s tone perfectly. Troy is young, lost and searching for a place in the world where he can do something creative. Howard carries himself like an A-lister behind tacky shades, prattles on about his 61 appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and attempts to impress his new acquaintance by dropping names like The Captain & Tenille.
Hanks recognizes at once that the guy’s a cheesy has-been. At the same time, he senses something authentic, almost noble about him. As easy a target as Malkovich’s character provides, this isn’t a Christopher Guest sendup; the movie isn’t making fun of Buck.
The performer’s been reduced to playing a backwater circuit — places like Bakersfield, Calif., and Akron, Ohio. The first few times we watch him step onto some creaky stage, raise his arms and gleefully shout, “I love this town!” we assume it’s a gesture of pure schmaltz. But over the course of 90 minutes we discover otherwise, to our pleasant surprise.
The touching thing about Buck is that he doesn’t just live in the past; he loves what he does so deeply, he’s barely noticed the world has moved on. One of the picture’s running jokes is that he doesn’t recognize celebrities more current than George Takei and Gary Coleman.
When the Cincinnati media outlets abandon a comeback stunt he’s staged in favor of covering a traffic accident involving Jerry Springer, for example, Buck is incredulous. Troy has to explain that Springer is kind of popular in the area, what with having hosted a decade-defining talk show and served as the city’s mayor. Then there’s the scene where Tom Arnold thanks Buck for inspiring him to enter show business. “I don’t even know who that is,” mutters Howard.
The heart of the film, however, isn’t Buck’s cluelessness, occasional pomposity or kitschy flamboyance. It’s his act. His stage show is a mesmerizing combination of the cornball and the truly mindblowing. You forgive the dreadful rendition of “What the World Needs Now” at the piano when he gets to his “signature effect”: He retires to the green room with witnesses while his evening’s fee is given to an audience member and then, on returning, uses his psychic powers to find it. In 40 years, Buck has never failed to retrieve the dough.
There’s a memorable scene between Hanks and Malkovich in which the assistant mentions a rumor he’s heard — that Buck has an accomplice hidden in the audience who whispers the location of the cash into an earpiece. “I love these people,” the greatly offended Buck Howard responds with unexpected sincerity, “and I would never cheat them.”
There’s also a smart, sexy, funny subplot about a romance sparked between Troy and a smart, sexy, funny New York publicist played by Emily Blunt. Sometimes I think it’s a shame movie stars aren’t publicly traded on the stock exchange. Hanks gives a winning performance, but I’d put every spare cent I have — and a reasonable percentage of my son’s college fund — on Blunt as the Next Big Thing.
McGinly manages a marvelous balancing act. He succeeds in making the career depths to which Howard has sunk comically seedy, while at the same time affording the character a dignity made possible by his obliviousness and self-absorption. Buck’s a fossil and a nerd, but what he does in little half-filled halls off the beaten entertainment path qualifies as nothing short of astonishing.
In less capable hands, the saga of a showman who just wants to show people that “the impossible is possible” might come off as sentimental. But McGinly, Hanks (not to mention his real-life dad Tom, who pops by to play Dad in the movie), Blunt and company know far too well what they’re doing to let that happen. Improbably, Buck Howard proves one of the most magical film creations in years, a totally one-of-a-kind accomplishment. I love this movie!