One might not expect a sweet, funny and warm-hearted crowd-pleaser from the man who wrote movies like Sexual Roulette, Sonic Impact, and Venomous, but I guess filmmaker Sean McGinly has spent the last eleven years churning out schlock flicks just so he could get to something good. And I'm very pleased to report that his newest offering, a smoothly, strongly appealing comedy called The Great Buck Howard, is definitely the "big break" that McGinly's been working for. Backed by a fantastic performance by John Malkovich -- and some really fine work from young actors Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt -- The Great Buck Howard might be the most affectionate look back at old-school entertainment since Peter O'Toole boozed his way through My Favorite Year.
Hanks is a law student who despises law school, so (directly against his father's wishes) Troy Gable bails on higher education and lands a job as a road producer for a serious has-been of a magician. Formerly quite famous (he's been on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show over 60 times), Buck Howard is a relic of a more innocent time. Magician, mentalist, musician and comedian, Mr. Howard is "old-school entertainment" at its most sincere -- and sincerely forgotten. Troy and Buck strike up a professional friendship, although obviously their relationship is due for a few rocky moments.
Howard, you see, is not completely thrilled with being a mostly-forgotten has-been who can only score gigs in towns like Bakersfield and Miami Beach. He yearns (and whines) for the days when he was treated like a big-time celebrity. But the world of show business is a notably unkind one, which leaves Buck forever scrounging for a new comeback. With the help of a sexy, no-nonsense publicist (played wonderfully by Emily Blunt), Troy hopes to bring a little bit of the spotlight back into Buck Howard's life. Suffice to say that very little goes according to plan.
Although it's a warm and wistful comedy on the surface, The Great Buck Howard is actually a very insightful film that perfectly captures the often-fickle relationship between entertainer and audience. It's a film that speaks to that urge in (almost) everyone, the urge to be loved, to be applauded, to be the center of everyone's attention. McGinly, thankfully, keeps the schmaltz and the cliches to a bare minimum, which allows the 87-minute film to dance across the screen with a good deal of charm, wit and character. (A stellar supporting cast, which includes Steve Zahn, Ricky Jay and Adam Scott, also helps out a whole lot.)
The Great Buck Howard is a feel-good movie that doesn't make you feel stupid for feeling good. It's thoroughly obvious that McGinly approached the screenplay with a good deal of sincerity and affection (perhaps one of his relatives was an old-time comedian?), and the filmmaker was lucky enough to get a cast that'd elevate his already-solid material with very little effort. This flick is a little winner, and definitely one of the best I've seen so far at Sundance '08.