The Hatchet goes to the Sundance Film Festival: “The Great Buck Howard”

PARK CITY, Utah – Another star-studded indie film emerges in “The Great Buck Howard” (Bristol Bay Productions.) Narrated and seen through the eyes of “Orange County’s” Colin Hanks (“Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny,” “King Kong”), the movie is another laugh fest.

The always-interesting John Malkovich plays Buck Howard, a great, yet aging magician. Though his stage name includes the adjective “great,” he has certainly seen better days as a mentalist. He’ll even tell you about them, as he states, “I appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times. That’s Carson, not that (current) hack Leno.” Hanks plays Troy Gable, a recent law school dropout who joins Buck as a road manager and personal assistant. Troy’s father is, of course, incredibly disapproving. This part of the story comes from director Sean McGinly (“Brothers”, “Two Days”, “The Truth About Juliet”), who himself dropped out of law school, moved out to LA on a whim and probably had to adjust the same way Troy Gable did.

In what should be his biggest movie to date, McGinly provides some serious laughs. Buck Howard is the perfect mix between pretentious and clueless as he travels from one small town to another. He greets every city the same, (“I love this town!”) and shakes everyone’s hand with comic jerkiness. Buck is lovable in his shows, constantly declaring, “Isn’t that wild?!” as if it was the first time he has performed the well-learned tricks.

The magic of Malkovich’s acting continues when Buck is shown behind the scenes barking orders at his assistant Troy. He is hilariously jaded in the old ways, while knowing nothing about the new (the Internet, David Blaine and anything electronic are alien objects to Buck.) Troy has to keep the mighty Buck Howard sheltered from critics, and here is where the plot takes shape – Buck goes through a rise in fame when he suddenly collapses while reading a negative review. The news covers it, and bam! A new Buck is born.

He goes back to Vegas, performs in bigger venues and even gets invited back to The Tonight Show. However, when the show’s other guest (Tom Arnold) talks too much and Buck is bumped, he throws a tantrum. “I appeared 61 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson! Know how many times I was bumped? None. Leno 1, Carson 0.” His unforgiving ways give Troy plenty to deal with as an assistant. He gets caught in a pseudo-relationship with Buck’s publicist (played by Emily Blunt, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Dan in Real Life”), until she is later fired.

The charm of the film occurs when Buck is performing, as he does his shows in a rather old-fashioned manner. He sings Burt Bacharach completely off key (“What the World, needs now.”) and hypnotizes audiences into thinking they are chickens. Troy learns to love the act as much as the audience, questioning and guessing each time Buck performs his final trick – having his audience hide his paycheck while blindfolded and then somehow finding the money every time.

If picked up and widely released, keep your eyes on Buck – you might miss the trick if you don’t.

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