The Great Buck Howard

Mar 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

It sure must be nice to have Tom Hanks as your dad. How else to explain blander-than-bland Colin Hanks nabbing a lead role alongside acting powerhouse John Malkovich? And all those incredible cameos? Steve Zahn, Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, Tom Arnold, Martha Stewart, Griffin Dunne, Ricky Jay and, of course, pappy Hanks himself all stop in to make appearances. The truth is, The Great John Malkovich would be a more appropriate title for this tepid trip into Hollywood nostalgia. The esteemed actor bites into his role as a washed-up mentalist with gusto, capturing the attention-craving desperation of a cornball performer who isn't as famous as he imagines himself to be.

Hanks Jr., on the other hand, does little more than play a nice guy. And, unfortunately, that isn't much of a character choice. Of course, Troy Gabel isn't much of a character. A law school dropout, Troy is in search of life's meaning, but first he must pay the bills. So he takes a job as the road manager for Buck Howard (Malkovich), an Amazing Kreskin-like performer who leverages his 61 appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and friendship with actor George Takei ("from the hit show The Star Trek," he boasts) into gigs at half-empty auditoriums in Bakersfield, Calif., and Akron, Ohio. Still chasing the dream of stardom, he's a third-tier celeb who knows how to work a crowd but can't help but lapse into petulant diva-like tantrums, tantrums Troy patiently endures. When Buck experiences a momentary resurgence in popularity, Hanks' character briefly flirts with a spunky publicist (played by underutilized Emily Blunt), but quickly moves to greener pastures. And that's it. Really.

Writer-director Sean McGinly has not only crafted Troy as an absurdly passive protagonist, he's put him in a story that lacks even the slightest whiff of dramatic tension, frequently relying on voice-over narration to move things along. Troy never makes any big decisions nor faces any challenges nor overcomes any obstacles. He's really just a blank-faced placeholder for the audience, filtering Buck's sad showbiz megalomania through old-fashioned naïveté.

It'd be easy to dismiss this grinding, inconsequential exercise in sentimental piffle, if not for Malkovich's gleefully cheesy Buck Howard. Riding the line between Jiminy Glick camp and empathetic charm, he paints a memorably hilarious portrait of a has-been who never was. Whether it's his garish suits, outlandish handshake, futile attempts to get booked on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show, or signature how-does-he-do-it show closer, Malkovich pulls off an amazing sleight of hand, gracing his character with exaggerated humor and heartfelt humanity. It's the kind of performance that honors his character's old-school showmanship, a showmanship The Great Buck Howard sorely lacks.

Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].