Don't ever call the Great Buck Howard a magician. The title character of The Great Buck Howard, played by John Malkovich, prefers to be identified as a "mentalist." Old-school hypnotism and hints of telepathy anchor his old-fashioned stage act, along with threadbare jokes and a half-spoken rendition of "What the World Needs Now."
The Great Buck Howard tracks the flagging fortunes of a once popular entertainer, but stands apart from conventional showbiz spoofs such as For Your Consideration by identifying the butt of its jokes and source of its inspiration. Titles at the film's end respectfully explain that 1970s mentalist/entertainer the Amazing Kreskin served as the model for Buck. Writer/director Sean McGinly clearly feels affection toward the real Kreskin, even though the film mercilessly depicts Buck as a dinosaur in an entertainment industry shaped by focus groups and Internet journalists.
Malkovich delights in the role's unctuous brand of showmanship, and employs quirks such as a pumping handshake that calls to mind a taffy-pull machine. Buck throws huge tantrums over petty annoyances while touting trivial accomplishments, such as his long friendship with "Star Trek's" George Takei: "George, may the Force be in you," he says. He's not exactly larger than life, but Malkovich makes him just magnetic enough that you can appreciate how he became famous, and why he'd have a loyal but dwindling fan base.
The Great Buck Howard proves more focused and plot-driven than Christopher Guest's improvised ensemble comedies about pop culture bottom-feeders, but fails to give Buck an adequate foil. We discover Buck's world of seedy dressing rooms through the eyes of law school dropout Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks), who takes a job as Buck's road manager while trying to decide what to do with his life. Troy's voice-overs examine his trivial dilemmas in numbing detail, but he proves passive to the point of nonexistence as the film's protagonist. Troy serves as spectator for turning points in Buck's fizzling career, including a fateful gig in Cincinnati, but doesn't influence them.
Tom Hanks produced the film through his Playtone production company and has a couple of scenes as Troy's disappointed father. It's not enough to see past the stunt casting response: "Look! It's Tom Hanks and son!" Few of the other actors make much of an impression. Along with Sunshine Cleaning, The Great Buck Howard is the second film opening today with supporting roles by Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn. Zahn's performance as a mouth-breathing rube reveals that Buck Howard is far more condescending to Middle Americans. Buck Howard, however fictional or deluded, better appreciates his audience.