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The Great Buck Howard Tries To Cast Spell On Denver Film Festival

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This is the sixth in a series of stories from the 2008 Starz Denver Film Festival, where 215 films were shown from November 13-23. The 150 filmmakers invited represent the city’s 150th anniversary, which was celebrated November 22. This film had two sold-out screenings, on November 19 and 20, at the Starz Film Center on the Auraria campus.

Give it up for The Great Buck Howard. The guy who put the mental into mentalist is eagerly waiting in the wings, practically begging for someone to love him. He just lives to entertain, and will trick his audience into believing they will enjoy almost anything he throws at them.

Is it all an illusion? Like the fictional performer, the film by the same name will keep you guessing. It’s cute, funny, sweet, and charming at times, and features a bravura performance by John Malkovich in the title role originally intended for Kevin Kline.

Better Buck Howard poster You might get fooled into liking The Great Buck Howard, but what if The Big Finish turns out to be The Big Letdown?

Leading Roles

John Malkovich (Buck Howard); Colin Hanks (Troy Gabel); Ricky Jay (Gil Bellamy); Emily Blunt, (Valerie Brennan).

Also Appearing

B.J. Hendricks (Burly); Jacquie Barnbrook (Sheila Haller).

Director

Sean McGinly (Brothers, Two Days).

What’s Up His Sleeve?

Like Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, Howard is another down-on-his-luck entertainer trying to stage a comeback. Only he thinks people still like him, really like him.

Well, he does have a fan base … in sleepy towns like Bakersfield, California and Wausau, Wisconsin, where the early bird diners seek some safe, wholesome entertainment before it’s time to call it a night.

And Howard gives it to them. Magic tricks and card tricks (which he prefers to call “effects”), mind reading, piano playing (to a spoken-word rendition of “What the World Needs Now Is Love”), corny jokes, and hypnotism are all part of his crass act. But, hey, he’s been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times (and not with “the nitwit who’s on there now,” he’s quick to point out). Other shining moments include appearances on shows hosted by Jim Nabors, John Davidson, and Sally Jessy Raphael.

He does shout-outs to a “very, very dear friend of mine, George Takei (a running gag with Sulu of Star Trek fame), works on benefit shows with the likes of Gary Coleman and “the guy from those Police Academy movies” and for his grand finale, goes into the audience to find his night’s performance fee, hidden away as part of the gimmick.

But The Great Entertainer needs an entourage to keep the magic happening. That’s where Colin Hanks (son of Tom, the film’s producer) comes in as Troy, an unhappy law school dropout and aspiring writer hoping to find a dream “before it’s too late.”

He settles on becoming Howard’s assistant for $650 a week, basically a glorified gofer who tries to make his star look good in a tuxedo no matter how difficult it gets. After his predecessor warns him not to take the job, his father (guess who?) scolds him and his fly-off-the-handle-at-a-moment’s-notice employer berates him while throwing backstage temper tantrums.

Emily Blunt, John Malkovich Along the way, the humble servant also falls for a sharp cookie, played by a fine Emily Blunt (left, with Malkovich). She strikes again as Valerie, who who sees through Howard (saying, “It’s hard to feel bad for him; he has a face you just want to punch”) and wants Troy to give it all up for love.

But the show (and the showman) must go on, no matter how cheesy it gets, as Howard aims to reach new heights with a stunt that “can change everything for me.”

The Reveal

If your expertise is late-night (or early afternoon) variety/talk shows from a bygone era, it doesn’t take superpowers to figure out who’s getting skewered here.

The takeoff on The Amazing Kreskin is purely intentional, starting with his firm handshake that’ll rattle your bones. It’s funny the first few times but overdone to a point where you want to scream at the screen, “Okay, we get it.”

Kreskin isn’t the only target, though, as the entertainment industry as a whole is under attack while pot shots are fired at an unlikely pair of sister cities – Cincinnati and Las Vegas. Jay Leno, one of several talk show hosts who makes a brief but lively appearance, also takes it on the chin, along with phony promoters, incompetent publicists, reckless limo drivers, and even online columnists.

greatbuckhoward Malkovich (shown with Hanks and the steady Ricky Jay, a former magician) is the oh-so-dramatic scene stealer who has lightened up by taking on roles in Being John Malkovich and Burn After Reading. He hasn’t chewed up this much scenery since he played Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Howard is at times vain, egotistical, insufferable and, with a persona as fake as his hairpiece, oozes insincerity behind every forced smile.

Mile High Five or Dive?

The Great Buck Howard, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is scheduled for a 2009 release, aims to crowd-please with many likable moments and cool cameos. It also works better as a savage satire than a touchy-feely message film about making “the impossible seem possible.” If you believe in magic, though, admiration and affection for the man might remain long after the movie vanishes into thin air.

• Go here for more from the festival.

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