The primary reason The Great Buck Howard doesn’t immediately float out of one’s mind is John Malkovich, who as the titular in-decline “mentalist” (based upon the Amazing Kreskin) proves a substantial anchor for this otherwise lightweight diversion. Increasingly resembling his father Tom in speech, appearance, and comportment, Colin Hanks stars as Troy Gabel, an unhappy kid who ditches law school—much to his father’s (Tom Hanks) chagrin—and takes a gig as the road manager for illusionist Buck Howard. Still touring the low-level auditorium circuit thanks to his 61 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Buck believes a return engagement to the spotlight is fast approaching, though it’s clear from his cheesy routine and even-cheesier personality—he frequently touts his friendship with George Takei, and greets every new venue with an enthusiastic “I love this town!”—that no real stardom awaits.
Writer-director Sean McGinly’s story takes few chances in its straightforward plotting of Buck’s showbiz routines and his fortuitous career resurgence, which leads to appearances on TRL, Conan O’Brien, and Regis and Kelly that have a distinct Jiminy Glick vibe. Troy sticks with Buck because, as an aspiring writer, the mentalist’s perseverance in service of an artistic vocation strikes a chord, yet McGinly doesn’t sufficiently dramatize this seemingly central point, the result being that Troy comes off as a somewhat thin audience surrogate. Meanwhile, press attaché Valerie (Emily Blunt), aside from giving Troy nookie and Buck cold, hard truths, mostly registers as a transparent narrative-aiding device.
If Great Buck Howard is formulaic and only mildly funny, however, Malkovich is nonetheless magnificent, his Buck an endearing cornball, a temperamental pain-in-the-ass, and a desperate attention-craving has-been whose vaudevillian charms and petulant outbursts are at once exaggerated (such as his vigorous handshakes) and moderated just enough by Malkovich to prevent the performance from succumbing to caricature. Sporting garish suits and displaying amazing sleight-of-hand, Malkovich is so persuasive it’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting the role, and it’s finally his simultaneously outsized and heartfelt portrait that allows the film, in its closing moments, to poignantly pay respect to the underappreciated magic of old-school showmanship.