Whenever I see the TV ads for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I always flash to another, recent movie about magicians from five years ago, The Great Buck Howard, that starred John Malkovich and Colin Hanks. The two have nothing in common, other than the similar titles and they're about magic, but hey, the mind works in mysterious ways -- which is sort of what The Great Buck Howard is about, since Buck is not a pure magician per se, but as he always wants to correct you, a mentalist.
The movie isn't for everyone -- it falls into that "quirky" category and some people just don't like quirky -- but I absolutely loved the film. Though it wasn't successful in the least, and you probably haven't even heard of it, it's well-worth knowing about. I yammer about it often to others. And now, thanks to this other magician movie reminding me, I get to do so again, here.
The story centers around a young man who drops out of law school, to the anger of his father, and travels around the country as personal aide to a -- how shall I put this? -- uniquely offbeat, once widely-popular mentalist ("I was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 61 times") who now plays the second-rate tour, though doesn't seem to notice. He has tunnel-version and personal drive like few else.
It's one of John Malkovich's best performances, joyous and weird at the same time, and he keeps the unique level going impeccably the whole film, sort of on a level with Jeff Bridges in Tucker. Colin Hanks does a solid job in what could have been just a Sancho Panza sidekick role, though the story is as much about him as it is Buck. It also has a terrific supporting cast, including Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, real-life magician Ricky Jay -- and as Colin Hanks's father, his actual father, Tom (who is great in his low-key, pissed off confrontations with his son, and who serves as one of the film's producers). The film is dotted, too, with a great many enjoyable cameos by celebrities playing themselves.
Finally, deserving high praise is writer-director Sean McGinly, who does a wonderful job creating an atmosphere of a bygone time, or at least type of performer.
By the way, the film is loosely inspired (with great affection) by real-life events, which are mentioned in the closing credits. Some might be able to figure that out ahead of time if you're less a lunkhead than I am, but it was a fun note (even if a small one) to see revealed at the end.
If you haven't seen The Great Buck Howard -- which is alas a good bet -- and like charming, offbeat, quirky, you can find the film here on Netflix. But here's the trailer before you get to that.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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