In my late 20s, I spent about a year managing a 1300-seat theater in the Midwest. Because of the size of our market and the size of the venue, we weren’t exactly pulling A-listers; we used to say that we tended to catch performers either on their way up, or on their way down. I mention this up front because Buck Howard is the kind of act we would probably book; he was a big name about 20 years ago, and appeared on Carson over 60 times, and to a certain older segment of the population, he still has some name recognition. But that population is dwindling, and even the small houses he’s playing are only about half full.Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard knows that world inside out. It’s not a grubby, run-down circuit; the venues are nice (many are new performing arts centers built to boost the local economy, or restored vaudeville houses like ours), the staging is competent, and the audiences are appreciative. But it is certainly a fall for a performer who is used to getting star treatment, and McGinly’s perceptive, knowledgeable screenplay is full of spot-on little details, like the bingo board behind the traveler curtain and the venue rep who makes the mistake of picking up the talent in a mini-van. (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my uncle for the time he picked up that band for me at their hotel in his 70s-era 15-passenger van. But I digress.)
Buck Howard (played by John Malkovich and loosely based on The Amazing Kreskin, who McGinly worked for on the road) is a “mentalist” (not a magician, he takes pains to note) who does 400 dates a year, repeating his somewhat hackneyed combination of insincere patter, bad piano playing, and somewhat amazing mind-reading ad nauseum. Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) is a recent law school drop-out who dreams of being a writer but takes on a job as Howard’s assistant and road manager to pay the bills.
Colin Hanks remains a fairly negligible presence as an actor—he’s not bad, per se, just not interesting enough to convince this viewer that he’d be working so much if he had a different last name. That said, his open face and affable manner work pretty well for Troy, and he’s particularly good in the two scenes he shares with his father Tom, who appears here as Troy’s father (the elder Hanks’ no-nonsense turn gives the picture a nice boost).
As Buck Howard, Malkovich is magnificent; this is quite a character, with his dapper but gaudy suits (this is a guy who lusts after Robert DeNiro’s wardrobe in Casino) and goofy haircut and outdated act. Something of an older (but not wiser) version of Will Ferrell’s numbskulled, self-important blowhards, he’s intoxicated by his own celebrity and unaware of (or not willing to admit to) its decay. But he knows he’s got to do something to get his profile up, and plans an elaborate “effect” that will hopefully garner national attention. Troy and Buck’s agent Gil (the great Ricky Jay) go along, but Buck’s publicist can only be bothered to send an underling—and this is where the lovely Emily Blunt comes in, with a second-act turn that damn near steals the show.
Blunt’s performance, as the publicist on her way up without the time to suffer a fool like Buck Howard, is fierce, funny, and terrific; she’s got a wonderful, sly way with a line reading, a way of putting a wicked, smoky spin on her whip-smart dialogue (“It’s hard to feel bad for him,” she notes of Buck. “He’s got a face you just wanna punch”). Her chemistry with Hanks is playfully sexy (he’s better when he’s working with her), and she’s even good in her non-speaking moments—McGinly frames a shot of Malkovich ranting about her and Hanks so that she’s in the background, and her reactions are such gold, you damn near have to watch the scene twice because you can’t decide who to pay attention to. (There’s not a bad performance in the film, really—Steve Zahn is wonderful in a small character bit, while Griffin Dunne makes an impression with a fairly thankless expositional role.)
McGinly’s script has its problems—it leans far too heavily on Hanks’ overwritten voice-over narration, the third act feels like rather a flight of fancy, and the closing scenes fall into some awfully traditional and predictable storytelling patterns. But his direction is aces; the picture is crisply paced and intoxicated by its own zippy, razzle-dazzle energy. The Great Buck Howard is a terrific little show-biz comedy in a deliberately minor key.