The Great Buck Howard is a perfect example of how it actually is possible to do a good job handling lightweight fare that's aimed mostly at adults. Most films that attempt to do this sink themselves in staleness and predictability, but every once in a while we get a movie that is pleasant and refreshing without insulting its audience's intelligence, and that's exactly what we get here. While not a groundbreaking film, The Great Buck Howard is engrossing from start to finish, and it avoids the pitfalls of corniness and manipulation, which other films of its kind would normally fall into.
Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and his real-life son Colin Hanks play father and son in the film, though the older actor is in the film for a only a short amount of time, while his son plays Troy Gable, the movie's protagonist. Troy is in law school because that's the path his father wants him to follow, but the poor guy is clearly unhappy; therefore, unlike most people, he decides to do something about it. He literally stands up in the middle of a class, says "I can't do this," and walks out. This leads to Troy finding himself in that frustrating funk that those of us who've just gotten out of school and start looking for a job are all so familiar with. But Troy's job-hunting expedition has a completely unexpected result for him: he goes to an interview for a job as the road manager of mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Although Buck is relatively well-known and has been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times, Troy isn't sure he recognizes him at first, and then eventually he asks: "You're... a magician, right?" Troy is hired, thus marking the start of thoroughly entertaining, dramedy-like scenes that feature the young man's attempts at keeping up with a boss who is way beyond eccentric.
Just like the title character is surprisingly successful at pulling off unbelievable "magic tricks" during his shows, so is director Sean McGinly surprisingly successful at making such a lightweight movie into a solid cinematic offering, and this is mainly a result of the fact that there are two complex elements at work here. One of them comes from the voiceovers of Troy, who narrates throughout the film. The voiceovers aren't merely a storytelling device here, but rather a means for the main character to provide insight on what he learns as he faces the toilsome life-after-college years (my only problem with the voiceover is that Colin Hanks's inflections sometimes make it too obvious that he's narrating what I think should sound like a more realistically-spoken reflection by his character). The other element is that, at some point, we realize that, though the events of the movie focus on the fictional character Buck Howard, they are supposed to reflect the hindrances faced by B-list celebrities in general. As the film shows, the level of fame of those people can go up very easily, and it can just as easily go in the other direction.
Publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) enters the film, as the character who handles press matters for Buck. While everyone will predict the romance that blooms between Troy and Valerie, the way that that segment of the plot unfolds isn't exactly what one might expect. Valerie tells Troy that she has a boyfriend, which is only part of the awkwardness that emerges as these two are intimate with each other. There's a particularly good scene in which they're lying in bed talking about where their lives may be headed, and Valerie reminds Troy that "he doesn't have to do anything," which is something that people generally forget all too often. The scene that depicts the climax of the romantic subplot is wonderful in that it doesn't give a definitive answer in terms of whether they'll stay together or not: it leaves room for possibilities, which I think is something that the film wants its audience members to believe in.
Over-the-top performances aren't normally my cup of tea, and there are definitely only a few actors who can pull them off brilliantly. Jack Nicholson and John Malkovich definitely fall into that small group, which is why it's so great that the latter actor is the one playing our title character here. Malkovich gives a wonderful performance, one that will likely be either forgotten or largely unseen, due to the film being so small. As in so many past occasions, he conveys anger, frustration and outrage perfectly, and manages to be both compelling and hilarious at the same time. The movie could've been pretty mediocre with someone without Malkovich's ability playing the mentalist. Colin Hanks has that quality of handsome dorkiness that is perfect for this sort of role, even though his acting is more on the so-so level (one suspects that, despite his looks, he has a long way before attaining a reputation as an actor that matches that of his father). The always good Emily Blunt not only voices a perfect American accent during the film, but she even has American mannerisms down.
I do have one question: why did the filmmakers decide to make it PG? The MPAA made the correct decision in assigning the rating because nothing "strong" enough happens to warrant a PG-13 rating, but what I'm wondering is why nothing "strong" enough happens to warrant it. By making the content PG, they've limited Buck's ability to curse much (which should be an integral element of a character who explodes as often as he does) and it also maintains the romance between Troy and Valerie at a somewhat tame level. I'd be fine with it if the film were aimed at kids, and you may think it's aimed at kids, since it's about a magician of sorts, but there's no doubt that this is an adult motion picture, even if it's a lightweight one. While its title adjective may not be an appropriate epithet for the film itself, The Great Buck Howard is good, thanks to a sense of fun that is bolstered by a decent amount of insight, and to John Malkovich's deliciously grandiose performance.