A behind-the-scenes look at a fading celebrity as seen through the eyes of his assistant-turned-road-manager, "The Great Buck Howard" is pleasant enough but too soft around the edges to make much of an impression. A sharper, perhaps more satiric touch from writer-director Sean McGinly could have only helped matters. As is, the film isn't outright funny enough to be considered a comedy, and not brave enough to follow through with the sobering natural conclusion it seems headed toward.
Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) is in law school preparing to be the attorney his domineering father (Tom Hanks) wants him to be, but his heart's not in it. On a whim, he drops out and plans to set his sights on his true passion: writing. In the meantime, Troy finds himself becoming the assistantand later makeshift road managerto Buck Howard (John Malkovich). A once very popular mentalist who appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" a whopping sixty-one times, Buck now travels the country performing in front of adoring older crowds in small-town venues. When their tour takes them to Cincinnati, where Buck claims he will be revealing a brand-new trick, it could just be the ticket he needs to rise back up from mild obscurity. With every success, however, there is bound to be a failure, and Troy gets a first-hand look at the downslide just as he starts remembering what it was he left law school for.
"The Great Buck Howard" has some nice moments, fleeting bits of insight, and a lead who falls into the decidedly undynamic role of observer to Buck Howard's travails. It is nearly impossible not to like Colin Hanks (2008's "The House Bunny
")like his real-life father Tom, who appears in a small role as his screen father, he has a down-to-earth, sincere, affable everyman qualitybut he isn't given a chance to do much aside from occasionally narrate. Often, he slips into the background to make way for star attraction John Malkovich (2008's "Changeling
"), exceptional in his turn as The Amazing Kreskin-inspired Buck Howard. Outwardly quirky, headstrong and set in his ways, Buck attempts to mask a lonely side that desires nothing more than for audiences to like him. Malkovich understands this character so vividly that it is as if he were born to play the part, and his horrified reaction to bouncy Cincinnati hostess Doreen (Debra Monk) taking to the stage to introduce him by singing a rendition of The Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic" is priceless. That Troy and Buck never really connect on a deeper level puts a damper on a sentimental late scene where the two reunite after going their separate ways.
As forthright publicist Valerie Brennan, who joins their tour in Cincinnati and makes goo-goo eyes with Troy, Emily Blunt (2007's "Charlie Wilson's War
") is let down by a screenplay that doesn't afford her the development or motivation to fill out the character. Blunt's role in the scheme of things is superfluous, and her relationship with Troy is one predicated by the demand that there be a romance somewhere in the picture. Let's just say sparks don't exactly fly in the chemistry department.
Is Buck Howard a genuinely gifted mentalist, or does he secretly use ear pieces and the like to fool his unsuspecting audiences? This is the provocative question that arises near the end of "The Great Buck Howard"not even Troy knows the answer for sureand one that could have led to an ending that was bittersweet but emotionally honest. Instead, director Sean McGinly goes for whimsy over darkness. It is the last straw for a film that doesn't have enough of a spine to take chances and suffers from its lightweight tone. "The Great Buck Howard" has one standout element in the form of John Malkovich, but everything else can, and will, be easily forgotten.