While undoubtedly mild sauce compared to the more excitable distractions at the video store, "The Great Buck Howard" is nevertheless a charismatic dramedy that's wise enough to dredge the muddy waters of archetypal entertainment personalities to boost a conventional story of flailing fame and the wonder years of undeveloped twentysomething life. The film is fun to watch, easy on the frontal lobe, and features John Malkovich in a lively performance that's both masterfully impish and authentically mysterious.
Fearing his stay at law school is killing his dreams, Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks, agreeably milquetoast) elects to break away from his predetermined future, taking a job as a road manager for entertainer Buck Howard to make some cash. A former big shot mentalist on the talk show television circuit during the 1960s and 70s, Buck (John Malkovich) has fallen on hard times, playing to half-filled theaters with his moldy act of magic and musings. Trying to stage a comeback, Buck demands the most from Troy and PR flunky Valerie (Emily Blunt, fetching, but once again butchering an American accent) as he works to perfect a miracle stunt involving hypnosis, with the young man growing to admire his volatile boss, but feeling pressure from his father (Tom Hanks, in a cameo) to return to a chaste life of assured financial reward.
Writer/Director Sean McGinly establishes a sparkling personality to "Great Buck Howard" immediately, generously playing around with the traditions of the faded blowhard star genre and all the screenwriting trappings the concept provides. This is not a riotously ambitious piece of filmmaking, but it has an attractive PG-rated comfort level that McGinly mines well, along with a congenial atmosphere of period nightclub theatricality that keeps the movie entertaining to watch. The filmmaker has affection for the old-time illusionists, basing Buck on the peculiar life of The Amazing Kreskin and taking cues from his act to build a routine for Buck, including a show closer that has the mentalist searching the audience for his hidden paycheck every single night. It's an affectionate observation of bygone showmanship and weathered egos that sets the stage for the finest parts of the feature.
While the ensemble finds a way to fit into the buoyant tone of the movie, it's Malkovich and his argumentative celebrity routine as Buck that makes the movie sing. As a performer with one heck of a handshake, a longing for the spotlight, and a desire to make peace with estranged pal George Takei, Malkovich turns on the headlights for this role, finding the proper texture of curdled charms and rehearsed onstage wonderment to use. The character is always an unreasonably demanding nuisance, but Malkovich achieves captivating shadings as Buck starts to recognize his fading stardom, leading to a bitterness that can no longer be tempered with cocktail hour platitudes.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) presentation on "The Great Buck Howard" DVD hangs on to the buoyant atmosphere provided by the cinematography, maintaining the bright colors and jazzy cocktail atmosphere. Some instances of EE creep into the experience here and there, but the image is generally well taken care of. Good facial detail and reasonable black levels help out the visual ease.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on the DVD is modest, electing to maintain a sizable punch with dialogue over atmospherics. It's a powerful reproduction of character exchanges, while the brassy score kicks up the sound dimension at critical intervals, sending some action to the surrounds. Crowd sequences also add some depth. A 2.0 mix is also available.
Spanish subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Sean McGinly and actor Colin Hanks is a laid-back track, with the two participants strolling through stories accrued during the making of the film. While the duo lose their focus from time to time (they get caught up in the film), they provide some humorous anecdotes on Malkovich's improv-heavy acting style and the Kreskin influences. Hanks is the dominant speaker here, though he's strangely inarticulate when talking up the challenges of acting across from his father. Still, a strong track worth the time.
"Deleted Scenes" (3:03) offer more life-on-the-road troubles for Buck and Troy, including a cameo from Casey Wilson, current cast member on "Saturday Night Live."
"Extended Scenes" (9:04) showcase Buck's interactions with national talk show hosts, including Regis & Kelly, Martha Stewart, Conan O'Brien, and Jon Stewart. The scenes also retain a deleted running gag in the film concerning Buck's plastic surgery.
"Outtakes" (3:39) highlight Malkovich's improvisational skills, along with a few excuse variations from Tom Arnold.
"Behind the Scenes" (9:35) is the drab EPK leftover discussion of BTS inspirations and motivations from the cast and crew. The video quality here is quite poor, not helping the strained promotional quality of the featurette.
"HDNet: A Look at 'The Great Buck Howard'" (4:27) is a cable channel advertising piece, and while it looks better than the BTS mini-doc, it's the same information.
"The Amazing Kreskin" (5:47) sits down with the man who inspired the movie. Talking up the highlights of his career and his perception of the film's events, Kreskin is an animated interviewee, though he's careful to remind the camera that the stage Buck Howard is him, not the megalomaniacal backstage grouch.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Great Buck Howard" jettisons some needed intimacy in the last act as it crams a whole career rebound subplot into a brutally condensed 15 minute block of exposition. The storytelling gets away from McGinly, but the wound doesn't scar, and the picture rebounds with a kindly closure that returns "The Great Buck Howard" to the same summit of genial characterization it opened with.