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Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn also appear in The Great Buck Howard but as significantly happier and less devious second and third fiddles, respectively. John Malkovich and Colin Hanks are the stars of Sean McGinly’s film, which the writer-director loosely based on his experience as a road manager for the Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist who enjoyed peak popularity in the 1970s but continues to peddle a magic act flavored with ham and cheese.
Malkovich may be a little young to play a Kreskin knockoff, but he’s appropriately entertaining and, occasionally, cringe-inducing nonetheless. Hanks’ Troy anchors and narrates the film, starting with the story of how, as a law-school student, he ended up as Buck’s assistant. (“There must be somebody out there whose dream it is to be a lawyer,” Troy’s voice-over goes. “But after two years in law school, I hadn’t met a single one.”) When Troy applied for the job, he had no idea who Buck Howard was—which proves something of an embarrassment at their first meeting in a restaurant, where Troy watches Buck work the room, grinning broadly and madly pumping the hands of his somewhat mature fans.
Even when Buck’s manager, Gil Bellamy (real magician Ricky Jay), informs Troy that Buck “was on all the big shows—Jim Nabors, John Davidson, Sally Jesse Raphael…” light bulbs fail to go off, except maybe Troy’s emerging impression that Buck is a relic. Still, the mentalist tours the country, playing to sparsely filled community centers in small towns and failing to get a spot on Jay Leno, though he repeatedly boasts of having been on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show 61 times. So Buck hires Troy to plan his travels and generally play whipping boy to his frequent and often delusion-fueled tantrums.
Blunt’s Valerie takes Buck’s abuse, too, as his publicist, though her patience is significantly more limited than Troy’s. (“It’s hard to feel bad for him,” Valerie says. “He has this face you just want to punch!”) Together she and Troy watch the performances of a man who says things like “the Star Trek” and “inkpen,” never failing to send audiences in a tizzy with his go-to “I love this town!” and Shatner-esque rendering of “What the World Needs Now.” Buck’s signature trick is the same as Kreskin’s: using telepathy to find his night’s fee, which he has an audience member hide in the auditorium. Valerie thinks it’s rigged, but Troy believes.
That faith and idealism is what The Great Buck Howard is all about, with Troy telling both Valerie and his unimpressed father (Colin’s real dad, Tom) that he quit law school to find a vocation that would make him happy. “When you do the thing you love,” Troy says in narration, “somehow, magically, you find the money.” No, the parallel isn’t exactly subtle. But the film is too genial not to enjoy: Malkovich, in a bad toupee, is hilarious as he plays up Buck’s retro flamboyance or misplaced anger (“That man is Satan,” he says of Leno), and the minor characters (including Zahn’s) who serve as the mentalist’s hosts in every hayseed town offer small but reliable giggles. After Troy witnesses a few of Buck’s shows, he remarks, “He was cheesy, there was no denying that. But he also had a sort of timeless charm that the audience really seemed to love.” Love may be too strong a word for how you might feel about the film, but the spirit of the statement applies.