The Great Buck Howard is a movie that seems constantly on the verge of turning into something. Although its title character is a stage magician (a mentalist, really, he would insist), the movie is like a trick that’s all set-up and no payoff. You sit through the whole thing waiting for the magic, but it never comes.
- The Great Buck Howard
- Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, Emily Blunt
- Directed by Sean McGinly
- The Great Buck Howard on IMDb
Dull Colin Hanks plays dull Troy Gabel, a law-school dropout searching for purpose in his life. He conveniently comes across an ad seeking a road manager for over-the-hill mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich), whose greatest claim to fame is having appeared on the Tonight Show (the Johnny Carson version, of course) 61 times. That was many years ago, though, and these days Buck is playing for half-empty auditoriums in places like Bakersfield, California, and Akron, Ohio.
Does Troy become reinvigorated by working for Buck and find direction for his future? Well, not really; he likes it, sure, but his sorely underdeveloped dream of being a writer is already in place by the time he meets Buck, and it’s fairly smooth sailing from there. Do Buck and Troy have a contentious relationship that teaches each something about himself? No, not that either; there are a few fights, but mostly they seem like cordial and pleasant business associates. Does Troy at least find love? Sort of—he hooks up with a beautiful publicist (Emily Blunt), but their relationship doesn’t really go anywhere, either for better or worse.
So what does happen, exactly? Buck struggles, and then has a brief resurgence of fame that lasts for about 10 minutes of the movie, and then falls back into obscurity. Troy stops working for Buck and moves smoothly along his path to becoming a writer. He also quickly resolves a few issues with his disapproving dad (Tom Hanks, who also produced the film).
Never at any point is there any dramatic tension to the story; just when it seems like something serious or important might happen, writer-director Sean McGinly just moves on to the next thing. The younger Hanks is likable but bland as Troy, and can’t carry a movie on his niceness alone, while Malkovich goes nuts with the exaggerated mannerisms but almost never sells the pathos of Buck’s never-say-die attitude (one brief hospital scene being the sole exception). As a closing title card reveals, the film is meant as a tribute to the Amazing Kreskin, on whom Buck is modeled. It’s a great greeting card, then, but it’s not much of a movie.