The Double Feature: The Great Buck Howard and The Illusionist (2010)
The currently in theaters Now You See Me is Hollywood’s latest attempt to delve into the world of magicians, and in the film the quartet of illusionists played by Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg are basically rock stars. It’s an interesting approach to take, especially in an era where the entire enterprise of magic feels like a throwback to a bygone age. The days when illusionists like David Copperfield could command television audiences are long gone. Today, illusionists still thrive in tourist hot spots like Las Vegas, but there is a sense that in a world of CGI and the internet (where the secrets of many tricks are just a few clicks away) it’s much harder for them to evoke a sense of awe with nothing more than slight of hand the way they used to. For that reason, I decided this month’s Double Feature should be an ode to films about the washed up illusionists, the ones whose rock star days have passed them by.
The Great Buck Howard (2008) stars John Malkovich as the title character, an illusionist past his prime struggling to stay relevant in the television age. Colin Hanks plays a young writer who takes on the task of being the difficult Buck’s assistant. It’s a thankless job to be sure, but the movie allows Buck to get away with his demanding behavior because he’s supposed to be a genius, albeit one in decline. Malkovich plays worn, but determined well as he walks a very thin tightrope to ensure that we care about Buck’s fate even as the character teeters on the brink of becoming insufferable.
Where the movie succeeds is in Hanks’ awe of his impromptu mentor. His character, Troy, is taking a chance of his own, eschewing a law career to chase his dream of becoming a writer. His youthful aspirations are played in stark contrast to the failing health and unyielding obsession Buck displays, but the two men find common ground in their artistry. As Troy gets swept away in Buck’s mission to return to his glory days, so do we. We, like Troy, want to believe Buck can pull off the greatest trick of all, a second act, because if he can, maybe Troy’s hopes for his own future aren’t as farfetched as his father (played by Tom Hanks, who also produced the film) believes.
Unfortunately, The Great Buck Howard suffers from a soft ending and a need to lean just a tad too hard on its desire to remain optimistic about Buck’s future. It hints that perhaps Buck possesses some measure of otherworldly talent, which is a bridge too far for a film that’s more about the grim reality of scraping one’s way back into the limelight than it is about testing the veracity of magic. Still, a few missteps asides, it’s a far more entertaining film than it was given credit for upon its release.
The Illusionist (2010), which is based on a semi-autobiographical treatment from legendary film director Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), isn’t just a film about a magician, it’s magical in its own right. The virtually silent animated tale comes from writer/director Sylvain Chomet, who is best known for the wonderfully frenetic The Triplets of Belleville. The film follows an aged magician watching his venues shrink day by day. Even as he’s forced to play to smaller and smaller audiences, he persists, traveling from town to town with nothing more than his bag of tricks and a cranky, scene-stealing rabbit.
It’s not until he meets a young woman who believes his magic is real that the magician begins to invest in another human being rather than his trade. He begins to take a series of odd jobs in the hopes of being able to provide his young companion with gifts, but along the way he runs out of things to offer her. It’s the sort of story designed to make the audience ache, and it’s a feat that is further accomplished by the poetic visuals that lend the film a beautiful, haunted quality. Somber, lush and intimate, The Illusionist is a serious contender for the title of best film about the world of magicians. It’s devoid of flash, but don’t be surprised when it wows you anyway.
While the two films I chose differ in quality and prominence, they both handily illustrate the darker side of the illusionist profession. The Great Buck Howard ultimately takes a softer stance on the public’s waning interest in tricks and illusions, but buried beneath the optimistic ending, there’s a clever satire about the celebrity culture machine buried within. Meanwhile, The Illusionist embraces the loneliness the transient nature of the job can foster, as well as the sadness that can come from facing a public who has lost the capacity to believe. What the two magicians at the center of the films share is a desire to make us believe in magic again, or maybe they just want to make themselves believe. Either way, they present two portraits of men trying to stay relevant even as their chosen careers are engaged in a disappearing act all their own.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s magician themed outing. If you have a suggestion for a Double Feature theme you’d like to see me explore in the future, let me know in the comments!
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