This movie was screened at the Maui Film Festival last summer, was made three years ago and is so low key, unusual and genuinely sweet, it’s no wonder that it had a long, uncertain journey to a wide release (it’s returning to Maui this week as part of MFF’s Candlelight Cinema series). Colin Hanks stars as a young man so desperate for a job, he agrees to be the assistant to the title character, a has-been “mentalist” (basically, a hypnotist) who is embarking on a nationwide comeback tour. John Malkovich plays Buck Howard and his movie star status and slightly weird demeanor make him an ideal choice for the role; his “is-he-nuts-or-is-he-a-genius?” approach to Howard is fascinating and, although it’s among Malkovich’s wilder characters, he makes the man real.
Director Sean Mcginley’s movie, one of the most gentle American comedies in years, isn’t a total bullseye and will be too mild for those who crave raunchier laughs. But the uniquely easygoing approach to this unusual story is one of its charms. This droll, lightweight but always interesting comedy offers real insight into when an entertainer is “hot” and when they become a “has-been” and the delicate line between. As a comedy, the movie may be a bit undernourished but as a character drama, I was always hooked.
Hanks is again ideally cast as a wide-eyed innocent and Emily Blunt is adorable as his supportive colleague and love interest. Tom Hanks (Colin’s father in real life) produced the film through his Playtone production company; the name is a nod to the Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, an equally cheerful thematic cousin to this film. The elder Hanks also has an amusing cameo, as do Steve Zahn, Adam Scott and a couple of “has-beens” in priceless bits that I won’t spoil.
The humor is often mild and some of the best jokes, like Howard’s bizarre handshake and his intense hatred for Jay Leno, are repeated too often. A nice touch is how we never learn how Buck’s tricks work—one in particular, involving a large group of sleeping adults, is memorably impressive and has a funny punchline.
Even with the humor being relatively tame, witnessing the backstage drama and career resurgence of such an offbeat figure is always intriguing. Malkovich has played many outrageous oddballs, including an off-the-wall parody of himself in Being John Malkovich. What draws us to his gallery of weirdos and nutjobs is that he finds the truth and humanity in every character, a wise choice that keeps the audience on his side; he may be hamming it up but he never looks down on his characters
Using words like “pleasant” and “laid back” to describe a comedy can make a movie sound lazy or altogether lame. Actually, while not a gutbuster, this is a funny, good-natured movie that you can bring your grandma to see (and really, you should take Grandma out to a movie!). MTW
Screens April 15 at 5 & 7:30pm at the Castle Theater in Kahului as part of the Maui Film Festival’s Candlelight Cinema series. Call 242-7469 for more info.