Sundance Review: The Great Buck Howard
by Alex Billington
January 20, 2008
I might dare call The Great Buck Howard magical, but it wasn't anything even remotely similar to The Prestige or The Illusionist, two films about actual magicians. While the film is about a magician, or a mentalist, as Buck Howard prefers to be called, it is much more of a straight-up, well-made dramedy headlined by another amazing performance from John Malkovich. I have a certain soft spot for any movies that involve magicians, and The Great Buck Howard definitely took advantage that weakness.
The Great Buck Howard is about a mentalist/illusionist (played by John Malkovich) who has a long running career that's finally beginning to fade and he's the only one who can't see it happening. He's the kind of has-been who despises Jay Leno because he played Johnny Carson's Tonight Show a total of 61 times and only plays small no-name towns across the US because they still love him. A law school dropout named Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) randomly decides to start working as Buck's road manager and thus begins a journey of self-discovery by watching Buck attempt to stage a career-making comeback and eventually fade into nothing.
There's a real hometown charm to this, and I mean that in the way that I got a smile out of so many of the heartwarming scenes with John Malkovich. He plays his gigs in small towns that still love him and while those stuck-in-the-past townies are a cheesy cliché, focusing a story around them was quite endearing. This isn't about the spectacle of performance, it's about the life of an entertainer who's career is finally coming to an end and how the life of a next generation kid is changed by his experiences with Buck.
John Malkovich delivers another brilliant performance that probably won't be widespread enough to be immortalized, but at least won't ever be forgotten. His character is almost a fraud and is quite cheesy, but it's because The Great Buck Howard as a film accepts that, that the idea is allowed to build further. The gimmick, if it can even be called that, of Buck's finale trick - finding his money hidden in the audience - not only hit that magical spot for me but was the perfect element for this script to hang on to. It was the trick that failed in the end and finally brought down Buck and allowed for the final emotional scenes involving Troy's experience to work so well.
If you have a real soft spot for magicians, then I will without a doubt suggest this. But I'm guessing I'm the only one who does, but the magic is only a minor piece of what makes up the greater puzzle in The Great Buck Howard. It's John Malkovich who will leave you amazed and bewildered and easily makes this a worthwhile experience.