Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Magic! Sean McGinly pulls off the rabbit trick in THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD

How is it that a movie (from its technical aspect, at least) so ordinary, if not bordering on the maladroit, turns out to be one of the genuinely sweetest and most enjoyable experiences of the year so far? Perhaps, as Grandma Wolf might say, "All the better to eat you with, my dear." THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD is a lot smarter than it initially looks. You sit there thinking, "Ordinary, obvious,"

even as you're getting caught up in the simple story of a young man (Colin Hanks), seeking a clue to what he might want to do with his life, who finds himself suddenly part of the world of the has-been "mentalist/magician" Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Not too long into things (the movie lasts less than 90 minutes), you're aware that something more is going on in than you'd first imagined.

This is due to the skill of a little known writer/director Sean McGinly (above, left), who, if there is any justice (don't even speculate!) will be much better known soon -- or eventually. Back in 2003 McGinly delivered a smart, funny and unusual movie called Two Days about an actor who has decided to commit suicide. (It starred Paul Rudd in one of his best roles to date; the other is I Could Never Be Your Woman. Yes, Rudd has made many more commercially successful movies -- these two went straight to video -- but if you care about how fine an actor he can be: probing, mysterious and withholding in "Days"; as loose, funny and amazing as we've ever seen him in "Woman," rent them both. And as an introduction to Mr. McGinly earlier on, Two Days is a must.)

But back to Buck Howard: I'm still rolling around my mind the reasons why it works so well. Start with its themes: entertainment -- and what this means to different audiences (Buck plays places like Bakersfield, CA, and Akron, OH). McGinly explores this from various angles and leaves you a bit richer and more thoughtful than when you sat down to watch his film. Then there's that thing about career, and what parents want for their children (Tom Hanks, as in "real life," plays Colin's father and also acted as one of the producers on the film). And finally there's "magic" itself: our need for it (or something like it) and what this gets us (the writer/director credits The Amazing Kreskin as providing the inspiration here). Mc Ginly weaves all these together, sometimes obviously, sometimes not, but usually quite gracefully.

Another reason for the success of the movie lies in its estimable cast. The younger Mister Hanks (shown right, with his "movie" dad, as Malkovich looms over them), so different here from the equally fine job he did as a stalker in Alone With Her, brings gravity, charm and the right amount of "ordinary guy" quality to his role. But it is Malkovich who finally carries the film. This actor has been so good so many times that it's pointless to babble much about the past. Buck Howard may be one of his "great" roles. You want to smack him in the kisser repeatedly throughout the film, and yet, by the finale, you end up somehow caring about him enormously. Malkovich merges ego with savvy, contempt with concern, showmanship with craftsmanship, and another twenty-odd competing characteristics to create one memorable guy. It's early in the year, but I'd predict his third Oscar nomination and maybe his first win.

Emily Blunt (left) is lovely and sweet in the relatively normal "girlfriend" role, Debra Monk and Steve Zahn play Ohio siblings, and Adam Scott (shown with C. Hanks, below), Ricky Jay and Griffin Dunne all deliver good work. (And there are countless appearances by celebs from Martha Stewart to Tom Arnold.) About that technical "deficiency": Tak Fujimoto, who knows his way around lights and a camera, did the cinematography. Yet everything here looks like so-so television. But then, Buck Howard made his name in TV (on the Tonight Show -- "but with Carson!") and now he plays those backwater venues. So perhaps the look is intentional. (Or maybe the budget was smaller than we think.)

I don't want to oversell this little film. I'll just say that, as the credits rolled, I was sitting in the screening room, grinning like an idiot and trying to hold back the tears.

The Great Buck Howard open Friday, March 20, at venues all around the country and will continue its national rollout through June.

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