The Great Buck Howard

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- A has-been mentalist clings to his glory days in this affectionate on-the-road showbiz yarn, which played to an appreciative audience here at Sundance. Starring John Malkovich as a once-hot entertainer, "The Great Buck Howard" is a warm, amiable glimpse at the end of the showbiz road.

At his peak, Buck Howard guested on "Johnny Carson's Tonight Show," 61 times, earning along the way the appellation, "The Great Buck Howard." It's a moniker Buck clings to, but a name that is lost on the new talk show hosts and youth market today. The Great Buck is, in short, an old fossil whose '70s style toupe and cornball approach no longer connect with audiences.

Great Buck is still ready for his close-up, but no one wants to see his mug except in no-so-great places. But Great Buck does not go quietly into a fade-out; he clings to the secondary circuit of Bakersfield, Wausau and other boondocks that the aging showman proclaims to love. Any day now, Buck believes Jay's people will call and he'll be back in the guest seat in Burbank. Buck's shot back to fame is hooked to creating one more super effect, which he hopes to launch with full media coverage.

The sidekick in this venerable road-show genre piece is an aspiring young writer, Troy (Colin Hanks), who handles Buck's logistics and indulges his vainglories. Diffident, yet brimming with a subversive sensibility, Troy had the mettle to stand up to his self-made father (Tom Hanks) and quit law school. In a sense, both travelers hope to find themselves: Buck to reconnect with his former self and Troy to develop his writer's voice and become the man that the dreams to be.

Dreams, of course, are fueled by many great things, and delusion and illusion are among them. In this light and mature amusement, filmmaker Sean McGinly taps the underside of ambition in Buck's vainglories. McGinly also distills the upside of resolve in aspiring writer Troy's quest for self-fulfillment. Beneath the froth, this comedy smartly touches those wellsprings, as well as reveals Buck's end-routine journey to Bakersfield.

Although it's got a serious side, writer/director Sean McGinly masks it with ripe and observant humor. "The Great Buck Howard" is an amiable trek, laced with sly irony and torqued with the wonderful notion that there is still magic in this world.

John Malkovich's performance as the fey and egotistical Buck is richly outlandish but shrewdly layered. No over-the-top rendition of a show-biz type, Malkovich conveys the admirable fiber and resilience of a once-great. Colin Hanks also distills the inner mettle of the affable, but resolute Troy.

The supporting characters are apt and well-chosen, particularly Steve Zahn as a local screwball and, nicely realistic, Ricky Jay as Buck's agent/manager. To boot, celebrity cameos, including Jack Carter, give credence to the storyline and theme.

Subtle oddities shine in this nicely understated comedy. Director of photography Tak Fujimoto's frames a sharp comic slant on secondary-cities, while production designer Gary Frutkoff's Americana is at perfect kitsch.

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD
Bristol Bay Prods. Presents
A Playtone Production
Screenwriter/director: Sean McGinly
Producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Steven Shareshian, Marvin Acuna
Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto
Production designer: Gary Fruitkoff
Music: Blake Neely
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Cast:
Troy Gable: Colin Hanks
Buck Howard: John Malkovich
Valerie Brennan: Emily Blunt
Kenny: Steve Zahn
Agent: Ricky Jay
Assistant: Griffin Dunne
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating

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