Isn’t that wild, folks?
Buck Howard is a has-been magician. His decade-old repertoire consists of simple sleights of hand, cheesy stand-up and cheesier piano songs: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”, perennially dedicated to his old friend George Takei. The only one who doesn’t seem to realize his career is over and that Takei wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, is Buck. Two people are in for the ride: his agent and a new road manager, the drifting kid Troy Gable. To him, his boss is a bit of a sad figure and a stepping stone to figuring out what he wants from life.
But Buck didn’t star in The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times without developing a certain amount of bravado. Played by an effervescent John Malkovich, Buck brims with energy, deliberate spontaneity and handshakes that dislocate the victim’s shoulder. Troy finds himself dragged along by his bubbling demeanor. Desperation eventually sets in and Buck tries to turn the tide on his waning career by hiring a press manager and devising a ‘spectacular’ new trick. Did I say trick? Buck prefers to call them ‘effects’. He is a mentalist, after all, no mere magician.
This is a simple film. It has few characters, only a handful of plotlines, clear developments. Love blooms up between Troy and the press lady, Valerie Brennan. Their affection is charming and believable, full of prodding and soft touches. The rest of the time Troy, played by Colin Hanks (son of Tom), is a bit of a wet rag, competent at what he does but nothing remarkable, nothing endearing. By contrast, Buck shines every time he’s on screen. Malkovich is clearly having the time of his life.
Is Buck a fraud? On some levels, he seems to be. On the outside, he is always kind and pleasant to his fans; behind the screens he can explode at people’s behavior. But there’s also the sensation that his eruptions are just the pressure of showbiz and that he really does love what he does. In the end, he seems sincere, and after all that’s said and done a fine magician. Old-fashioned, but classy in a timeless way.
Everything in this movie seems poised for great comedy, but the laughs stay strangely absent. The quirky characters are there. Not just Buck and his tantrums, but the type of side shows you’d think bring hilarity: a handle-barred redneck chauffeur, a disgruntled PA, the obsessed aging fan. There are plenty of funny moments throughout, but never the comedy push the film is starving for. In the spirit of Buck, it should’ve gone for cheesy jokes over no jokes at all.
What the film is, then, is an amusing drama about an eccentric entertainment fossil giving it one last go and his road manager trying to find his way. What keeps it afloat is the larger-than-life character at its center: always captivating, always in the zone. That proves enough for The Great Buck Howard to be a fun watch, but not nearly enough so to achieve the greatness of say, a 62nd talk show appearance.