There's a scene midway through The Great Buck Howard when the character played by international superstar Tom Hanks gives career advice to the character played by his real-life son, Colin Hanks, telling him, "You're smarter than this." If only the two actors had heeded the script's wisdom and fled the set while they had the chance. The Great Buck Howard is about as boring a time I've had watching a movie in some time. My restless legs had restless legs.
Buck Howard starts off all right, with an opening narrated sequence that has a catchy momentum and cheek that's, unfortunately, out of step with the rest of the film. In the preamble, Troy Gable (Colin) abruptly quits law school because his heart's not in it, but he doesn't tell his dad (Tom), who made all kinds of sacrifices for his son, we're told.
Troy's a smart kid, but he didn't look before he leapt. He answers a classifieds ad to become a road manager for the touring "mentalist" Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Howard was once a great showman, having appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times (he reminds others frequently). But the intervening years have seen his star dim some.
Buck hits the road with Troy in tow. A love interest comes aboard somewhere in Ohio when New York PR gal Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) — who feels like she's been sent to celebrity Siberia — joins the team. Blunt's arrival comes right when the film begins taking on serious water from its languid pace. Unfortunately, Hanks and Blunt have all the chemistry of a noun.
Malkovich is in unprecedented form as Howard. It's an odd casting choice. As written, Howard is a once-great celebrity who has become an E-list personality but still thinks he's no worse than B-list. In front of a crowd, he's genuinely personable, and he greets fans with all of the graciousness of a humble hero. In private, he's a bit of a diva and not too nice to the help.
Malkovich delivers Howard's darkness and frustration with ease. But with aggressively bad hair and a too toothsome smile, I just wasn't buying Malkovich in the part. It's the authentic charm that is such an ill-fitting suit on the actor. Not that he's probably not a swell guy in real life, but you can only watch so many movies with Malkovich as the brilliant misanthrope above it all or the brilliant criminal prone to fury before you come to expect it from his characters. (Compare his Howard to Malkovich's richly dark, funny role as Osbourne Cox in Burn After Reading or as himself in Being John Malkovich. The actor can do comedy.)
For more than two-thirds of Buck Howard, everything feels like preamble to a second act that's kept at bay. Then the second act lasts about 10 minutes, and the last act tidies up loose ends and terminates in about five. The overall film is only 90 minutes, but it feels longer than a Memphis Tiger coaching search and isn't nearly as interesting.
The Great Buck Howard
Opening Friday, April 10th