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STUDIO: Magnolia Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
• Behind the scenes
• Deleted/Extended scenes
• The Amazing Kreskin interview
• Audio commentary
John Malkovich reads minds. Based on the bestselling autobiography ‘John Malkovich Reads Minds’.
Starring John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks, Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn
Written and directed by Sean McGinley
Colin Hanks has problems. His problems are deep and wide, he’s white, he grew up comfortably, he has a ridiculous amount of options and he’s at a fantastic law school. Men have killed for less. But noooo, he’s got to be all whiny and existential and so he drops out and becomes a manager for the titular Great Buck Howard, a mentalist who plays small theaters across the country. This is their story.
When you see ‘The Great Buck Howard’, do not walk in expecting to see a movie about the Great Buck Howard. It is not about him, it could be about any other former star still hanging onto the past. Buck is there to provide a catharsis for the main character, Troy (Colin Hanks). But it is a testament to the supreme acting abilities of John Malkovich that make us more drawn to Buck. He’s meant to be a bit distant, aloof and mysterious, he’s a magician (err, mentalist) and to know the trick is to ruin the illusion and that is all we have of the Great Buck Howard. And that is all we need.
That distance is the film’s greatest strength and weakness. It keeps us asking questions, in particular one question: how does Buck do his most famous, seemingly impossible trick night in, night out? And weakness because Troy is written so…blandly. Sure, he reminds me of myself, twenty something, doesn’t know quite what he wants to do, is a little passive-aggressive, thinks he wants to be a writer but fucking a, I am dull as shit, I don’t want to watch me for two hours and yet here I am, watching myself when even my counterpart on screen would rather be watching Buck Howard.
Hanks Junior goes all in. He’s naturally handsome, naturally charming and quite naturally, he reminds me of his father. This fact is made evident because his father actually shows up and the mannerisms and speech is eerie. Colin Hanks is literally a smaller, not as prestigious version of Tomas. But that’s the thing, all of that is coming from Hanks, not the character he’s playing. For someone based on the writer/director’s own life, well, the guy must have lived a very cliched existence. I found the scenes without Malkovich, elder Hanks and really everyone else to be more engaging. Colin Hanks is great, but he’s fighting an uphill battle: a screenplay that revels more in the supporting characters and the fact that he’s leading a movie when everyone knows John Malkovich is so much better than everyone.
A few recognizable names have semi-prominent roles and there is a wealth of cameos from television stars and other celebrities. Magician to the stars Ricky Jay is noticeably ‘Ricky Jay-ish’ as Buck’s manager, Tom Hanks as meta-Tom Hanks to meta-Colin Hanks and Debra Monk shows up as the owner of an Ohio Theater, along with her brother, Steve Zahn. They felt a little too unrealistic; country bumpkins exaggerated to the point of silliness. Zahn himself is used to the sidekick role, but Monk is out of place and the film grinds to a halt when she is around (I am deeply saddened to report).
The plot meanders for most of the running time, more a series of scenes from a documentary than any fully formed narrative. Buck performs a great feat that finally, FINALLY gets him some national press and when that takes off, the film loses a bit of its comedy but makes up for it in a more focused tone. It laid the table, now the characters get to eat from it. Troy provides minimal narration that is both witty and poignant, and they are some of the best lines he has because he doesn’t have to play it completely straight. I know it’s Troy’s film, but the rambling eccentricity of a Buck Howard voiceover sounds like the best thing ever.
Let’s talk about Malkovich. He was born for this role. Now, I might say that about every character Malkovich plays, but what can I say? He knows how to pick them. Buck is a faded star, he played The Tonight Show 61 times…when Carson was still hosting and Buck still clings to the belief that that matters. He’s charming and a consummate showman, the film never once questions that his “fame” is ill deserved. He wears kitschy 70s clothes, he says ‘I love this town!’ everywhere he goes and he shakes hands in a way that can break shoulders. Eccentric, but not bordering on Nic Cage obsessiveness. But he’s also nearly unhinged, a trait Malkovich excels at. Every moment is one screw-up away from the weary Howard to tear into you and when he’s let off his leash, it’s equal parts ridiculous (because the infractions are so tiny) and appropriate (because this is exactly how someone like Buck would behave). Buck does a lot of performances and they never get stale, director Sean McGinley is smart enough not to show you things over and over again unless they’re relevant, and to see him perform, you kind of wish Malkovich would become a puppeteer because even on a screen, his presence is palpable and it makes you immediately perk up.
Speaking of perk: Emily Blunt. She’s on too long to be a minor character, but not long enough to be a big player. She comes and goes as the script desires and, like Buck, we don’t get to know her as well as we should. She remains strictly in the realm of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only more professional and with less glitter and indie rock in her playlist. Blunt is stunning, intelligent and is given a quip or two, but ultimately her sole reason for being is to kickstart Troy’s life. She has no other purpose. Which, if you’re Troy Gable, is a really good thing.
‘The Great Buck Howard’ is smart and funny. Don’t think I’m being down on this film, it’s a wonderful little movie filled with great performances and has a good screenplay to back it up. Had it been a great screenplay, one that let us more into the fading world of a fading star, the film would only be improved. The ‘rookie tossed into the new situation’ device is fine, but we should walk away caring more about the rookie and not the veteran. Charming, funny and a little bit sweet, ‘The Great Buck Howard’ is the most delightful kind of magic trick: one that you can watch over and over, never figure out just how it all works, but only caring that it does.
The DVD comes filled with a few extra worth watching. Commentary by director McGinley and little Hanks. A few deleted and extended scenes, mostly of Malkovich improving his reactions (some of which are better than the final cut). The behind the scenes is short but telling, gathering interviews from everyone about how they loved the script and blah, blah, blah, everything you’ve come to expect and it is enjoyable. There’s also an official ‘hey! check this out!’ from HDNet that is EPK-ish in all of its glory.
My favorite, however, is a brief interview with the Amazing Kreskin, the man whom Buck Howard is modeled after. A fascinating character and he might even be legit. He’s a witty old man with big glasses who, like Buck, commands an audience. Short, but enjoyable.â€¨
7.2 out of 10