Uh oh, it’s magic

Posted on 02 Apr 2009 at 1:12pm
By Steve Warren Contributing Film Critic

Is Buck Howard gay? Who knows. But the charmer will make you laugh


TRICKSTER: Buck Howard (Malkovich) casts his spell.

B

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD

Director: Sean McGinly
Cast: Tom Hanks, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, John Malkovich and Colin Hanks
Opens April 3 at the Magnolia.
1 hr., 27 min.        PG

Branson, Miss., was invented as a retirement home for entertainers who don’t know their careers are over. A daily dose of applause is the oxygen that keeps them alive.

"The Great Buck Howard" (John Malkovich) hasn’t kept up with the times enough to know about Branson. So he stays on the road, playing to small audiences in small cities, adored by fans who also haven’t moved on since the ’70s, when Buck appeared 61 times on "The Tonight Show" — "with Johnny Carson, not the nitwit who’s on there now."

Our entrée into Buck’s world is provided by Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who was forced into law school by his father (Tom Hanks — typecast?) but dropped out after two years and is trying to find himself. Troy thinks he wants to be a writer, but while he tries to figure that out, he takes a job as road manager and personal assistant to The Great Buck Howard.

Never mind that he’s never heard of the "mentalist" ("I was a magician when I was 3 years old, but I evolved out of that"). Troy can pick up the fine points of the job from his outgoing predecessor, Alan (Adam Scott).

Troy learns to ignore Buck’s insults. The man’s temperamental if not bipolar and will be sweet as sugar an hour later — or the next day — until something else goes wrong that his assistant can’t shield him from. Observing Buck at work for the first time Troy notes, "He was cheesy … but he had a kind of timeless charm."

The act consists of a few tricks — er, illusions — er, effects — plus a song or two, a lot of patter and frequent shouts of "I love this town!" The finale is Buck’s signature effect, where he has two volunteers hide his fee while he’s in the green room, then comes back and finds it.

How he does it is one of the questions people have always asked about The Great Buck Howard. The other: "Is he gay?" Troy gets asked both questions a lot but never learns the answers. As to the latter, Buck considers George Takei a "dear friend" and tells an interviewer he’s never married because "I’ve never met the right little lady."

Within the space of a few months, Troy sees Buck’s career hit a new low and bounce back to a new high. He also finds sex, if not romance, with Valerie (Emily Blunt), a publicist Buck hires to orchestrate a comeback attempt in Cincinnati. She’s one of those who asks if Buck’s gay, having thought Troy might be his "traveling companion."

Writer-director Sean McGinly credits The Amazing Kreskin as the inspiration for The Great Buck Howard. And as a former law student, McGinly was obviously his own inspiration for Troy. Without being preachy, he gets across the message that we spend too many hours of our lives working to work at jobs we don’t like. This is the common bond between Buck and Troy, neither of whom will do what others deem sensible for them.

A few A-list celebrities put in cameo appearances but there are far more D-listers, apparently between reality shows, who would rather be laughed at than forgotten — a reminder that Buck is not a figment of McGinly’s imagination. Still others are namechecked in the dialogue, creating a sense of "If TMZ had existed in 1973 …."

It’s hard to imagine anyone but the star of "Being John Malkovich" being The Great Buck Howard in all his faded glory, letting you laugh at him and feel sorry for him at the same time, while you admire his cheesy, timeless charm. As for Colin Hanks, he’s been acting for a decade and has yet to find his "Splash," let alone "Philadelphia" or "Forrest Gump." He’s inherited his father’s looks but it remains to be seen whether he’ll display the same charisma if he ever gets cast in a movie that connects with the public in a "Big" way.

"The Great Buck Howard" won’t be that movie. It’s got 10 times the entertainment value of "Watchmen" but isn’t likely to find more than a respectable cult following. Flashy opening graphics may be intended to draw in younger viewers but they have nothing to do with the style or content of what follows, and the young crowd won’t appreciate the painful ’70s nostalgia.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 3, 2009.

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