The Great Buck Howard is a cute little movie that managed to further endear Colin Hanks, John Malkovich and Emily Blunt to me. It's probably not going to change lives, but it more than suffices as a good distraction. Plus, it's a new and interesting portrayal of that 20-something distress of not knowing the answer to questions like "What do I do with my life? How do I figure out what's next?" Perhaps because I’m not much older than Colin Hanks’s character in the film, I appreciate stories that explore this particular struggle.
It's a common conundrum in this day and age: Average kid Troy (Colin Hanks) graduates college and goes to law school for a while before realizing he doesn't actually want to be a lawyer — so, now what? There's blessed little time devoted to the whole clichéd argument about changing careers (i.e. "Becoming a lawyer wasn't my dream, Dad — it was yours!") and swift movement onto the meatiest part of the narrative: Troy's in-the-meantime job as personal assistant to a famous "mentalist" (not magician, mind you), the Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Troy accompanies Buck to all his shows, where Buck mostly plays to small crowds of older folks. Buck's delusions of grandeur make us cringe as it becomes clear that he's not exactly in the big leagues as a performer, and yet with Troy (and everyone else, for that matter) he behaves like a diva. Troy takes the abuse without complaint and he seems to feel pity toward the aging performer. When he meets a pretty publicist named Valerie (Emily Blunt), Troy starts to think more seriously about what's coming next in his life. To see what comes next in my train of thoughts,
With his signature intensity and precision of speech, John Malkovich easily slips into the role of Buck Howard — and what fun for Malkovich to play such a wonderfully larger-than-life character. While certain parts of the story might drag, Malkovich's Buck Howard consistently draws us back in with his outrageously dramatic, egotistical, and unpredictable personality. Malkovich also nicely balances making Buck Howard obnoxious without allowing us to ever hate him.
The story moves into some ordinary territory with the washed-up performer treating his poor, young assistant badly. But Troy, with his even temperament, doesn't seem to mind too much, and the truth is that Buck Howard is a fading trace of an already faded star. Not only is he drifting into obscurity as a performer, but his art itself is not particularly popular nowadays. It also becomes painfully clear that Buck doesn't have anyone in the world that he can rely on. We'd pity this aggravating, lonely man, but we can't because he doesn't seem particularly daunted by his own diminishing fame. Why would he be? He's the Great Buck Howard. In his eyes, he's the greatest.
Furthermore, he still has his fans and he even has the respect of his assistant — largely because Buck has an especially puzzling and impressive trick and Troy can't figure out how Buck pulls it off. In many ways the movie is a coming-of-age story for Troy and as he transitions from his younger self to an adult, he still has this childlike desire to believe in magical things, and not being able to figure out Buck's trick delights and satisfies this part of him. He wants to still believe in the omniscience of someone magical, and the sweetest part about this whole story is that Buck lets him.
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures