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Sundance Review: ‘The Great Buck Howard’ Gets Some John Malkovich Magic

John Malkovich stars as a washed up mentalist trying to get back into the spotlight in this very enjoyable comedy from Writer/Director Sean McGinly and Producer Tom Hanks.
By  · Published on January 19th, 2008
Colin Hanks, John Malkovich and Ricky Jay

Have you ever heard of The Amazing Kreskin? Good, because neither had I before seeing the film The Great Buck Howard this afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival. Kreskin is actually the character upon which The Great Buck Howard, played by John Malkovich (Color Me Kubrick), is based — and to be completely honest, if this guy is half as wild as the character that Malkovich delivers in the film, then he must be quite a trip.

Malkovich’s Buck Howard is a washed up stage performer, a magician. Or as he likes to be called, a mentalist. We are introduced to him through Troy (Colin Hanks, Orange County), a recent law school dropout who has defied the wishes of his father to seek that which he truly desires — as soon as he can figure out what it is he desires. As a twist of fate, he ends up as road manager for The Great Buck Howard’s show, and the lackey to a washed up, eccentric and utterly addictive performer who still refers to The Tonight Show as “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”. As Troy attempts to figure out his life and understand why he is so drawn to Buck’s odd charm, Buck schemes to make his big comeback with one big illusion that will stand as his greatest accomplishment.

This leads them of course, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Buck will stage his great trick and with the help of a sexy, savvy New York publicist (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada) he will rise back to the fame that has been lost long ago and hopefully earn a place on a stage in Vegas.

What may seem like a very simple story is, in fact, a very simple story. To say the least, this film feels very easy. Easy to understand, easy to follow and probably easy to pick apart for lacking depth. But who really wants to do that when its true purpose is to give John Malkovich arena in which he can strut his stuff. Malkovich has always been a great actor, possessing something that you just don’t learn at some school — it is a charisma that is unmistakable, and it is a perfect fit for the character of Buck Howard. He is sometimes over the top, sometimes wildly eccentric, but he easily entertains his audiences, both on screen and off.

Writer/Director Sean McGinly

It that vain in which writer/director Sean McGinly’s film is made. It begins and ends as an upbeat, uncomplicated comedy that serves its purpose, to entertain us. And while it is John Malkovich who owns the show, he is flanked by very solid performances from a very solid cast. In fact, it was Colin Hanks that started the entire process, bringing McGinly’s script to his father Tom, who decided to produce under the Playtone label. The elder Hanks does more than just produce though, he lends his acting talent as Troy’s disapproving father — which must have been fun, as Tom is be able to handily lecture his real life son on screen.

As for the younger Hanks, he continues to give us the same character over and over, which works here as it did in Orange County. At least he has this going for him: if Hollywood needs an indecisive young male lead who holds up well next to a beautiful starlet like Emily Blunt, they’ve got their guy. Speaking of Ms. Blunt, who doesn’t come into the film until half way through, she comes away yet again with a very enjoyable performance. She gives her character a slightly unhinged side, allowing her to fit right into frame with Hanks’ Troy, as she too has no idea what she wants out of life, she is just better at faking it.

All of this gets thrown in with a very intelligently written script and a well developed comedy by Sean McGinly. He finds away to keep things moving, keep us engaged in the characters (mostly Malkovich, but in the end you are rooting for all of them to figure their lives out) and he makes us laugh along the way. And while this may not be the most fantastic or critically acclaimed film shown at Sundance this year, it certainly has the right formula to be successful with the mass populous. If you are into comedies that have a little bit of heart, but mostly just don’t need to be darker than they have to be, then you may want to keep an eye out — as The Great Buck Howard could be a movie to watch.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)