Original US release date: March 20, 2009
Production budget: Unknown
Worldwide gross: $900,689
The Great Buck Howard is a bit of a mystery. Not the film, itself, but the circumstances surrounding the film. The low-budget production, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, never really reached an audience. Despite its charming narrative and characters and its brand-name cast, virtually no one is aware of its existence. I only know of it, myself, because I seek out anything featuring Tom Hanks. But, despite featuring Hanks (albeit in a glorified cameo), his son Colin, Emily Blunt, and John Malkovich, and also despite garnering solid reviews, the film never expanded beyond a release in 55 theaters. Yes, there was apparently a small budget (I say “apparently” because the budget for the film was never publicly released), but there was seemingly enough to afford some serious star power. Perhaps after that, there was no money left for marketing and/or getting the movie a nationwide release. I’m only speculating. All I can say for sure is that I believe the movie has mass appeal for general moviegoing audiences, so it’s sad that it never got the chance to succeed on a larger scale.
Inspired by the real-life magician/illusionist/mentalist the Amazing Kreskin (for whom writer-director Sean McGinly was road manager), The Great Buck Howard stars John Malkovich in the title role as a longtime celebrity stage illusionist whose star has fallen with time. Told from the perspective of his newly hired road manager Troy (Colin Hanks), Howard sets about trying to reignite his career and become the major attraction that he was in his heyday.
Howard, himself, is a satisfyingly complex character, played wonderfully by Malkovich. Howard loves what he does, he loves your town, and he loves the attention. But, as is the case with many professional entertainers, he’s also very self-absorbed, placing his own success and public perception above all else, including the people around him. He isn’t mean-spirited, and never truly becomes unlikable, but he’s often inconsiderate if things aren’t going to his own liking. Though he cares about other people, he cares about himself just a little bit more. It can be debated whether this makes him more honest than most or just kind of a jerk, and that gray area is part of why it works so well.
Colin Hanks’s Troy probably gets the most screen time – even more than Howard. We are seeing the story unfold through his eyes. Troy’s father (played by his real-life father Tom Hanks) is not exactly thrilled with Troy’s vocational choices, preferring him to be a lawyer. as a result, Troy feels he has something to prove. Along the way, he meets Valerie, another of Howard’s entourage, and they hit it off, forcing the two to routinely choose between business and pleasure. Hanks and Blunt both turn in effortlessly endearing performances, easily winning over the viewer with their lightheartedness and easygoing natures. You want to root for them and they present an appealing alternative when Howard is going through one of his more abrasive phases.
Ultimately, the film is about the desire in us all to retain our relevance in a world that is constantly threatening to pass each of us by. Adapt or die. Howard struggles to adapt, as so many entertainers (and non-entertainers) have before him. He no longer understands the world around him or what audiences are drawn to. Becoming a relic, he is no longer able to survive in the comfort zone he has always held so dear.
In contrast, Troy is trying to find his place in the world at the beginning of his life. He has yet to figure any of that out for himself. Despite being on opposite ends of life, Troy’s struggles are reflected by Howard’s. But what is clear to both of them is that people are wired to do certain things. It’s possible to settle for something else and find what is generally defined as “success”. But if there’s no personal satisfaction involved in the work – if there’s no passion – then is there really any success?
I suspect that McGinly put a lot of himself into this film and particularly into the character of Troy. Aside from both of them being road managers for popular illusionists, both are also doing what they can to follow their passions. McGinly has yet to hit it big, but he hasn’t given up (he has another film coming up soon starring Deborah Ann Wohl entitled Silver Lake). I hope he finds his way. I strongly suggest giving him a chance by seeking out The Great Buck Howard. It’s a warmhearted, crowd-pleasing tale with an impressive cast, plenty of laughs, and memorable characters. It deserves an audience, and you can help it find one, even nine years later.
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