A good comedy with jokes and nostalgia for the whole family and tasteful subject matter. But it would have been as good or better without the Hanks father-son team
“The Great Buck Howard” is a tale of nostalgia and the never failing power of the human mind to create the reality we want. Buck Howard is a mentalist. That is different from a simple magician. Mentalists are magicians that graduate from manual dexterity to being able to control people’s minds. The most important thing for any mentalist is being to control his own mind. He must never believe he can fail. When he loses control, he loses control over everything.
Colin Hanks plays Troy Gabel, a young law student who decides that law school is not his calling and that show business is why he has to be. Colin’s father Tom Hanks plays his father in the film. Mr. Gable does not approve of his son dumping a six figure college education in favor of a minimum wage job being the personal assistant of a man who arguably should be in an insane asylum. In the few (very few) shots we see Tom Hanks, he is telling his son this.
In choosing someone to play a deluded performer who is slowly losing his mind but still has a few tricks up his sleeve, who could be better than John Malkovich? He is transitioning to this film from his super performance as the fired over-the-hill CIA agent in the Coen brothers’ offbeat comedy “Burn After Reading.” Self-delusion is his middle name but he is not going to take losing his grip lightly. They will have to drag him, kicking and screaming, back to rationality if they are able to drag him at all.
Indeed, who better to back up John Malkovich than Steve Zahn and Emily Blunt? The combination of the three works well. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Colin Hanks spends far too much time in front of the camera when he hardly performs at all. Is Daddy Hanks at the bottom of this? Actors in similar positions have changed their names for less. The young Hanks character is sort of a questioning, searching type. But emerging director Sean McGinly has made a significant mistake in directing him as if he did not have to act. The presence of Tom Hanks in a couple short scenes only highlights the bland persona that Colin projects on the screen. Thank goodness he doesn’t have to develop very much screen chemistry with Emily Blunt; she blows him out of the water.
The film is an entertaining and engaging comedy with yeoman performances from Blunt, Zahn and, most prominently, Malkovich. Unfortunately, the overall pleasant affect of this easygoing, pretty much PG rated comedy drama is tainted by the very artificial appearance of the Hanks family. If young Hanks is quickly becoming “one of Hollywood’s leading men” it is beyond the understanding of the normal mind why that is. He appears to be a serious, dedicated and inexperienced actor who may have a future ahead of him. In terms of billing, he should have been behind both Blunt and Zahn, who were each much funnier than he in this film and have more extensive track records as well. Both Zahn and Blunt just appeared in “Sunshine Cleaning” and even with Zahn’s minor appearances in that film he outperformed Colin Hanks in this one.
The appearance of Tom Hanks is always welcome and he was great during his token appearances on screen. The problem is that he seemed to be there for no other reason than to help his son get seen. The father-son team is of another day.
In spite of these criticisms this is a funny comedy with a heart of gold. The subject matter is tasteful, all in all and actually has some magic tricks that are fun to watch, even when they are not live. Colin Hanks has some good roles ahead of him but he has to land much more spirited screenwriting. Even more importantly he needs to be put into roles that are not the ones favored by his father. He needs roles where he can be on edge and vent some sub-conscious wrath. He needs a role where he can be himself and enjoy doing it.
Release: March 20, 2009
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 87 minutes