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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson

Posted March 18, 2009 | 09:47 AM (EST)

Review: The Great Buck Howard (2009)


The Great Buck Howard
2009
90 minutes
Rated PG

"People die everyday, Frankie -- mopping floors, washing dishes and you know what their last thought is? I never got my shot." -- Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby)

We are always hearing about comebacks in Hollywood. Sometimes it's the much-vaunted recovery from some kind of personal issues, trying to remake their career after artistic or financial failure, or simply re-emerging back into the limelight after a self-imposed sabbatical. There is an odd need to embrace the 'back from the dead' narrative in Hollywood careers. What's never discussed, however, is why so many entertainers feel that they are entitled to a second chance, especially when so few people get their first shot in this most random and brutal of businesses.

The Great Buck Howard is a charmingly entertaining comedy about the difference between second chances and second acts. It is no small irony that the film seems to cement the next stage of John Malkovich's career, that of the approachable and non-threatening comedy actor. I've written elsewhere about the odd phenomenon of famous villains becoming gentle comic souls in their later years (in fact, that essay started as the opening paragraph of this review), and Malkovich's humorous and subtle performance is what makes this film worth seeing.

A token amount of plot -- Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks) has just quit law school, much to the chagrin of his father (Tom Hanks, who also produced this picture). Deciding that he wants to be an entertainer/writer instead, Troy eventually finds himself hired as an assistant to Buck Howard (Malkovich), a past-his-prime stage magician and hypnotist who is struggling to regain the fame and glory of his prime years. Buck Howard may be occasionally pushy, rude, and overly demanding, but Troy sees the true talent that once made Buck a star and convinces himself that what he's doing has purpose.

It's not the most original story ever told, and I was annoyed at the pointless inclusion of a romantic interest. Emily Blunt's publicist character has little depth and no real use to the story other to give Troy someone attractive to crush on. But the pay off is surprisingly moving and the characters are surprisingly honest. I'm fond of the moment when Troy's father confides in his son that he certainly doesn't enjoy the high-stress work that pays the bills, but that he was hoping that his son wouldn't have to fend for himself (tragically, this marks the once invincible Tom Hanks' first good live-action movie since The Ladykillers in early 2004). This is a small movie, and the picture sneaks up on you even as you know where it's probably headed.

The film works mainly because of John Malkovich's delightful comic performance. As a genuinely talented man who is in denial about the level of his fame and the nature of his legacy, Buck Howard inspires our sympathy even when his behavior doesn't always earn it. The story eventually becomes a treatise on what it means to be successful in a given field, regardless of your level of fame. The final ten minutes are shockingly effective, with Malkovich doing some of the best work in his career. In the end, The Great Buck Howard is a small story, well-told by actors who rise above the sometimes stock plot mechanics. The film has a good-natured vibe, with a surprisingly sound resolution that rings true. It's worth seeing for John Malkovich's wonderfully atypical performance, and I cannot wait to see what he does with his own second act.

Grade: 3.5/5