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Review: The Great Buck Howard

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How GOOD is Steve Zahn?! LET'S TALK ABOUT IT. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Showmanship in the long-held traditional sense just keeps getting moved more and more to the fringes of contemporary entertainment. Circuses, for all of the revelry and majestical wonder they inspired only a decade ago, are in serious decline. David Blaine and Criss Angel are the magicians and mentalists of our day. Indeed the horizon looks bleak.

That is, unless you ask the Great Buck Howard. Or, rather, see the film. The Great Buck Howard follows a single mentalist (NOT magician, as he is quick to point out), as he tours the country playing third-tier cities that still look favorable on his dusty old illusions and mental feats. He predicts, he hypnotizes, and he even has a stand up and singing portion of the show. This is the type of entertainer that you just don’t see anymore. The problem is, it may be for good reason. The Great Buck Howard (played by John Malkovich) is comedically oblivious to his own irrelevance, which leads to any manner of social faux pas and moments of stifled chuckling. But it’s not until he gets a new assistant, played by the where-have-you-been Colin Hanks, that Buck is able to come to terms with himself, and in the process find the success that has left him for the past several decades.

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The Great Buck Howard, more than anything else, combines great casting with middle-of-the-road writing and directing. The smaller character choices by Malkovich, and the sadness in his eyes at the right times, really help to bring life to the pieces that would otherwise be flat. Hanks, for his turn, is steady and comfortable, showing a presence that is neither overdone or too understated. He is the sort of charming go-lucky guy you would expect to have the unenviable job of being an assistant to a traveling has-been mentalist. Emily Blunt, as the PR lady turned love interest, is a bit forceful but not in an uncharming way. However, the true scene-stealer of the film, as usual, is Steve Zahn in the role of Cincinnati ultra fan to Buck Howard. He drives Buck around, he arranges plans, all with the worst outfits you’ve ever seen and a mustache-to-sideburns combo that just won’t quit. It’s just so easy to love Zahn, and yet again he steals the show.

The Great Buck Howard is a playful film that doesn’t really add up to much more than Sunday afternoon fare. The actors, with the notable exceptions of the always great Malkovich and Zahn, are serviceable, and often pick up the pieces of a script that could use a little more pull in one direction or another. By not venturing too far from center, relatively unknown writer / director Sean McGinly staves off embarrassment, but he doesn’t get many accolades, either. Ultimately, The Great Buck Howard is a watchable and enjoyable film, but don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything about it six months from now.

The Great Buck Howard is loosely based on The Amazing Kreskin, and opens on March 20th around LA.