Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Film review: "The Great Buck Howard" is cheesy in the nicest sense

John Malkovich in 'The Great Buck Howard.'

By Hap Erstein

Those with a taste for whimsy should appreciate a small sleeper comedy called The Great Buck Howard, opening locally on Friday, a satirical jab and affectionate celebration of B-list show biz types who persevere long after their time in the limelight has run out.

The best thing about the film is the wondrously cheesy performance by John Malkovich as the title character, whose overly vigorous, desperate handshake says volumes about him. He is a mentalist, which in the entertainment pecking order is maybe one rung higher than a hypnotist, and Buck will tell anyone he can get to listen that he appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show 61 times.

It was Johnny himself who first gave Buck the superlative that became part of his official billing. But these days, most audiences want something hipper than this aging vaudevillian’s act and Buck is still waiting for his first phone call from Leno. Although he is given to angry outbursts offstage, Buck is an unwavering optimist, so he knows the call is coming. And meanwhile, he is content doing his act in two-bit towns like Bakersfield or Wausau, declaring each one his favorite city in the world.

Buck is the most compelling character, but the movie is really about Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a law school dropout and writer wannabe, who finds himself taking the job as Buck’s assistant and all-around whipping boy. For Troy, entering this world is like running away and joining the circus, even if it does mean following the elephant and scooping up after the beast.

The film is written and directed by Sean McGinley (Two Days), but surely the power behind it is producer Tom Hanks, Colin’s father, who shows up in a couple of scenes as Troy’s disapproving dad. Surely the elder Hanks was the Pied Piper who drew the project’s parade of names in cameo roles, which is itself amusing enough to sustain interest.

During a bright moment in Buck’s eternal comeback, he becomes a daytime TV fixture, appearing with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, as well as the Stewarts — Jon and Martha. He does get the call from Leno’s people, but spends the show in the green room, when Tom Arnold natters on and Buck gets bumped. There’s an amusing running gag about Star Trek’s George Takai, who shows he has a good sense of humor about himself by popping into the film at a well-calculated moment. And Broadway’s Debra Monk is delicious as a star-struck theater manager who infuriates Buck by insisting on paying him a musical tribute, singing his introduction instead of playing the recorded words he favors.

About two-thirds into the movie, Emily Blunt shows up as a no-nonsense West Coast publicist who joins the team in Cincinnati, sizes up the situation, refuses to kowtow to Buck and decides to bed Troy. No, law school was never like this for him.

As the final credits acknowledge, the character of Buck is loosely based on mentalist Kreskin, aka The Amazing Kreskin, whose final effect in every city he played was to find his fee, hidden by audience volunteers somewhere in the theater. So it is with Buck, and the most frequently asked question of Troy — besides, “Is Buck gay?” — is how he finds the money.

Little gems like The Great Buck Howard have so many things working against them that when they arrive, so under the radar and so satisfying, it is like a great, albeit cheesy, magic trick.

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