The Great Buck Howard

Remember Almost Famous? The semi-autobiographical tale of Cameron Crowe’s experiences following around The Allman Brothers? OK, imagine if, instead of following around a rock band, the lead had followed around The Amazing Kreskin.

If you can imagine that, you’re probably better at imaginin’ stuff than I am. If you can’t, you can always go see The Great Buck Howard.

TGBH is the dramatized story of writer/director Sean McGinley–and big props to this guy, who came up through the ranks writing for Fred Olen Ray and other B-movie luminaries, to finally get this big break–as a young man, who has freshly dropped out of law school in order to find something he actually likes doing. (An amusing note, he says through his character that he never found anyone in law school who loved it.)

Having no direction and no money, he signs up for this interesting job of “Road Manager for Big Celebrity”. The celebrity is The Great Buck Howard, a talented mentalist whose best days were 20-30 years ago. A regular on The Tonight Show–the one with Johnny Carson–he travels from town to town, proclaiming that He Loves This Town and giving handshakes like a man trying to start a model T.

His act is cheesy and corny, with his none-too-shabby “mentalist effects” alternating with some less than stellar standup and positively Shatneresque singing. Howard himself is by turns charming, irascible, wise, rude and ill-tempered.

The plot sort of hangs off a trick that is Howard’s signature: He leaves the stage, the audience hides his pay for the performance among them, and he has to find that money or not get paid. I’d say it was a heavy-handed metaphor, except that the Amazing Kreskin actually performed a similar trick repeatedly–not always succeeding. So the fact that it works as a metaphor is coincidental, apparently.

The whole movie breezes along in under 90 minutes, and with John Malkovich in the title role, you almost couldn’t get bored. This is a movie in the vein of My Favorite Year or any of the other “young man follows his heart while observing a wacky elder” flicks, from which you can probably figure out if it’s your cup of tea.

The lead role is played by Colin Hanks, whose father is played by his father, Mr. Tom Hanks. Emily Blunt, late of Sunshine Cleaning, gets to play a non-neurotic love interest/PR person, and the cast is filled with celebrities playing themselves (Tom Arnold, George Takei, Regis and Kelly), and a lot of people who look familiar but might take a moment to place, if you can place them at all (e.g. “Happy Days” Don Most).

The Boy enjoyed it, and was curious about the mentalist tricks. He didn’t know there wasn’t a Buck Howard. Understandable. Even I really couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know, and there were so many celebrities running around in the ‘70s, most of which I still don’t know what they were famous for. (I pity the future trying to keep track of today’s celebrities.) Anyway, it might be more interesting–or a different kind of interesting, anyway–to know where this movie hews to truth and where it wanders.

It probably won’t get a big release, but you could do a lot worse this weekend.

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