I was extremely disappointed by "The Great Buck Howard".
The Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich) is a stage performer way past his prime. A mentalist, he bounds up on stage and proceeds to astound his audience with mind reading, hypnotism and other mental games. The only problem is that he now plays broken down theaters in places like Bakersfield and Fresno and his audience, while still very enthusiastic, is aging and dwindling. In his heyday, he appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" sixty three times, a fact he mentions repeatedly, and Carson was so taken by the performer that he called him The Great Buck Howard, a title he has determinedly kept ever since. Preparing for his big comeback, his business manager (Ricky Jay) sets up a meeting with a potential Tour Manager. Troy Gable (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) has just dropped out of Law School and moved to LA to become a writer. But reality quickly settles in and he realizes he needs a job to pay the bills, so he interviews to work with Buck. He gets the job and heads out with the performer, making sure Buck's every request is filled, that the venues have everything set up, stagehands are ready to go, and the like. The problem is that Buck still thinks he is a huge star and expects the venues to treat him as such. Buck is very bitter that Jay Leno has never had him on his new "The Tonight Show" and plans a big stunt, guaranteed to kick-start his comeback. He decides Cincinnati is the place and asks his management company to send a publicist. Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt, "Sunshine Cleaning", "The Devil Wears Prada") shows up and begins to set everything in place. But she is bemused by Buck and attracted to Troy and her presence causes things to begin to fall apart.
Written and directed by Sean McGinly, "The Great Buck Howard" misses a very key element to make the film successful and memorable. It lacks the right tone.
John Malkovich is interesting as the fading star who feeds on his self-perceived fame and glory. Buck trots out on stage at every venue and shouts, "I love this town," and he really seems to mean it. He plays in aging theaters and is barely able to fill them with his aging audience. But they also seem to genuinely enjoy his show. Buck enjoys performing and seems to eke a living out of it and we can't fault him for this.
But Buck Howard is not very funny. We have seen this type of character before. Many times. And many of these performances have been more insightful, more daring and more interesting.
For "Buck Howard" to work, we need to realize the character knows his career is fading. He doesn't seem to. He enjoys the shows so much, you get the feeling he could perform for one person and he would be having fun. In fact, much of the time, he seems to be trying to make Troy's life more difficult simply to have something to do and maintain his 'great' status.
But Malkovich never portrays Howard as being self-aware. If Buck never has any doubt about his ability or standing, are we supposed to either laugh at or with, or feel empathy towards him? He isn't desperate enough and enjoys what he does, even on a smaller scale, too much.
Colin Hanks is OK, but he spends most of the time standing to one side, observing everything.
Its difficult to tell what Troy is thinking or feeling because Hanks rarely changes his expression. The only clues we seem to get come from his narration. And his narration never seems to stop, rambling on and on. Film is a visual medium, a visual art form, so hearing consistent narration throughout a movie is the equivalent of trying to read a book and having someone consistently shove a DVD player in your face to watch video of what you are reading. Narration is useful and necessary in some instances. It isn’t necessary to provide an ongoing commentary about what characters are feeling on screen, when we can't tell this visually. At least it shouldn't be necessary.
I can recall two recent examples of narration in film, both bad. In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Woody Allen uses an omniscient (and ever present) narrator to tell us the feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes of the characters we are watching on screen. It quickly grates on the viewer's nerves. Worse, the narrator isn't even a character in the story. It's like he is reading us a story as we are trying to watch the same fable unfold before our eyes. The narration in "Buck Howard" seems designed for a different purpose. In many low budget, independent films, a narrator provides a useful tool. They tell us about things, bridging the gap in the stories, saving the filmmakers some money and allowing the story to proceed. I generally overlook this, because it isn't quite so obtrusive into the experience and it often helps enhance the film. In "Buck Howard", I get the sense the narration is designed for the same reasons, to help show things they couldn't afford to film, but Hank's descriptions go beyond this. They start to describe what he and other characters are feeling, thinking, want to do and accomplish. Why aren't we seeing this in the characters themselves? Why do we have to be told this?
Hanks is not a very magnetic force in the film. He stands to the side a lot, observing, watching, rarely speaking. When he does, he always seems kind of flat, as though he can't muster up the energy to feel any real emotions. I can't help but think how much different his father's career would have been had he done similar work in the beginning of his career.
When Emily Blunt's Valeria shows up, Troy becomes a little more energetic as they begin a romantic relationship. Troy actually smiles a few times and seems to enjoy the companionship.
Emily Blunt provides a little bit of fresh air. Valerie arrives in town to help Buck navigate the press corps for his big presentation. From New York, it quickly becomes clear Valerie comes from a different world. She moves faster, registers faster, reacts faster than the people in Cincinnati and seems like a little tornado whirling through the town. As soon as she meets Troy, she begins to flirt with him (she must see something we don't) and he picks up on it, relishing the new relationship. At one point, Valerie can't help but laugh at one of Buck's statements, providing a little ray of sunshine among the group of people who are taking his every word so seriously.
Steve Zahn and Debra Monk pop up as a brother and sister designated to be Buck's official hosts in Cincinnati. It is an amusing idea, but the roles don't really go anywhere and they end up simply disappearing.
And there is an amusing ongoing joke about a feud between Buck and George Takei (Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek). But even this leads to what should have been a memorable moment and this moment just falls flat. It almost seems like everyone is playing the scene straight.
I suspect "The Great Buck Howard" will enjoy a lifetime in obscurity, much like the fictional subject of this forgettable comedy.