Sean McGinly’s semiautobiographical The Great Buck Howard—a barely veiled story about McGinly’s stint as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin—is an affable little movie that overcomes a somewhat too aggressive first half with charm and humanity in the second. This is by no means a great film, but it makes up in modest pleasantness what it lacks in weightiness. In this regard, the cast is a terrific help.
I suppose that somewhere along the way I actually saw the Amazing Kreskin. If the man appeared on The Tonight Show (or as the film insists The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson) about 60 times between 1970 and 1980—the prime era in which I was likely to have been watching—the law of averages suggests that I must have bumped into him on TV. In any case, I have zero memory of Kreskin as anything but a name, which means that I have no way of judging the effectiveness of John Malkovich’s performance as Buck Howard (the film’s name for Kreskin) in terms of its closeness to the real deal. Despite that, I will say that Malkovich’s Buck Howard has the feeling of authenticity. Malkovich captures the strange mix of vanity, self-realization and self-delusion that one sometimes encounters in marginal celebrities who cling tenaciously to a fame they more grazed than actually hit. It’s a knowing performance that elicits sympathy by refusing to ask for it.
The film follows Howard’s later career. By the opening of the film, anything like fame is long past for Buck Howard. The Tonight Show is behind him, as are most TV appearances, and Howard keeps going by performing the same corny mentalist act over and over at increasingly shabby venues that are rarely even half filled. It’s this world that Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) enters when he accepts the job of being Howard’s road manager—a far from glamorous job that is at least better, in Troy’s mind, than continuing in law school and pursuing a dream that is more his father’s (real-life father Tom Hanks in a small role) than his own.
There’s not all that much plot to the film, though there is a story arc. It mostly consists of a series of vignettes of life on the road with Buck Howard. Along the way, we are treated to Howard’s mood swings, his jealousies, his parsimony and his strange devotion to his idea of himself. What makes the film a bit unusual is that it never purports to be an in-depth portrait of Howard/Kreskin because Troy Gable/Sean McGinly never got past the surface of the man and doesn’t pretend to have. Twice in the film Troy is asked if Howard is gay, and twice he has to answer that he really doesn’t have a clue. At best, the film offers impressions drawn by reading between the lines—and then sometimes proves those impressions to be wrong. Similarly, other people’s assertions about Howard—notably Griffin Dunne’s—are completely wrong, made up of the stuff of passed-on inside knowledge.
In the end, everyone has this or that question about Buck Howard. Is he gay? How does he do his signature trick (or “effect,” as he calls it) of having his performance fee hidden in the audience and then almost unerringly (reports vary between four and nine failures) locate it? In Troy’s case, the question everyone has about him is more personal—and one that I’ll leave to the film to pose. Similarly, we’re left with questions that are only even hinted at, like why Howard’s road managers are always at least moderately attractive young men. The film definitely suggests a jealousy element concerning Troy’s romantic involvement with Howard’s publicist, Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt), but it never goes beyond suggestion.
Quite a few reviewers have complained that the film isn’t much when Malkovich isn’t on-screen. I’d argue with that on two points. Without getting away from Buck Howard, the character would be overbearing (even as it stands, this is a narrowly escaped problem), but more to the point is the fact that what matters in the film is less who Buck Howard the cipher is than how he is perceived by the people around him. These less colorful perceptions are what give Malkovich’s character the nuance he needs to come to life. If anything makes Buck Howard “great,” it lies in the sense of the possible that he brings to his audience and to the people who drift in and out of his orbit. And it’s the combined effect of what we see of Howard and how others perceive him that makes the film worth seeing. Rated PG for some language, including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference.