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The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich) is very clear in letting everyone know that he was on The Tonight Show sixty-one times - that's The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson , not The Tonight Show with that new guy Buck calls "Satan." In fact it was Carson who dubbed him "The Great" Buck Howard. Buck is also very clear on another point: he's a mentalist NOT a magician. But Buck works far from the spotlight now as he performs in community centers in places like Barstow and Akron. Yet his enthusiasm hasn't seemed to wane. He greets everyone with an injury-inducing hearty handshake and each new locations with "I love this town." And he actually seems to mean it.

Buck is preparing for his perceived imminent return to the spotlight by heading out on the road where he claims to do 400 shows a year (don't do the math). He needs a new road manager and assistant and he finds an unlikely one in Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks), a wannabe writer who has just walked out of law school where he decided he simply wasn't having any fun. Troy hasn't told his demanding father (played by Colin's real life dad Tom Hanks) yet about his career move and is doing all he can to postpone that confrontation. Desperate for both money and a new direction in life, Troy takes the job with the eccentric Buck and heads off on the road.

Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, John Malkovich, and Steve Zahn in The Great Buck Howard (Magnolia)

Buck is pompous and holds a self-inflated view of his place in the entertainment industry. Yet on a certain level what he does is often impressive and amazing since it appears that his feats result from a genuine gift rather than trickery or illusion. But no one is really paying attention. When he stages his big comeback event, the camera crews flee the scene to cover Jerry Springer's car crash. But Buck manages to survive and that's what proves fascinating to Troy. This may not be the career Troy wants but it'working for Buck definitely opening his eyes to new possibilities, especially when a sexy publicist (Emily Blunt who can also be seen this week in Sunshine Cleaning ) comes on board.

The film The Great Buck Howard is much like the man himself - corny, old-fashioned and out of sync with the times. It also works a strange spell on you. It's by no means a great film but it has a quaint appeal and a delightfully pompous performance by Malkovich. This is the kind of performance that can carry a mediocre film and make it entertaining. Malkovich pulled off a similar stunt recently in Color Me Kubrick . Here we get his classic slow burns (as when he's upstaged by the publicist's tales of celebrity encounters) to full-scale explosions (as when his stage routine is disrupted by one of the show promoter's need to sing an introduction to him). Nobody plays arrogant with quite the delicious disdain that Malkovich can muster and he's hilarious here without completely losing the humanity of the character.

Colin Hanks and real life dad Tom Hanks as his on screen dad in The Great Buck Howard (Magnolia)

Colin Hanks gets to perform with his father but the film doesn't exploit that on-screen/off-screen dynamic with any cleverness. Dad also served as one of the producers on the film. Colin is fine in the role of Troy, yet it's a role others could have done better. Colin is likable but whether it's his fault or the script's or the director's, the character of Troy is never anything more than an observer who interrupts the film with voiceover narration telling us his observations. He never feels fully engaged in the proceedings and always seems stuck on the sidelines.

But I'll give writer-director Sean McGinly credit for not coping out to certain clich es about fading stars on the comeback trail. He also allows a mystery to remain about The Great Buck Howard and his act. It's almost a given that what he does is for real and not a shaman's trick, and in that respect, the film is refreshing. Maybe that's because McGinly based Troy on himself and the script on his own experiences as a road manager for The Amazing Kreskin (who in turn was the inspiration for the character of The Great Buck Howard).

The Great Buck Howard (rated PG for some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference) feels more of the scale of a TV movie than a feature film. It's satisfying in a formulaic way, hitting all the right emotional notes as our young observer finds his way in life and comes to appreciate what Buck has to offer. This one would play fine on DVD.

Companion viewing: My Favorite Year, The Illusionist, The Man Who Wouldn't Die

NOTE: Be listening to the KPBS Film Club of the Air on Wednesday March 25 at 10:00 am on These Days when The Great Buck Howard will be one of the films we have up for discussion.

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