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‘The Great Buck Howard’ lacks magic

No amount of psychological manipulation from John Malkovich can make us believe the lightweight comedy is nearly as poignant or profound as it aspires to be.
/ Source: The Associated Press

No amount of psychological manipulation from John Malkovich can make us believe the lightweight comedy “The Great Buck Howard” is nearly as poignant or profound as it aspires to be.

Malkovich completely goes for it here as the film’s titular mentalist — don’t call him a magician — a role that allows him to luxuriate in his off-kilter, theatrical diva persona. (The character was inspired by The Amazing Kreskin.) But it’s in service to a rather facile, softhearted satire about this business we call show.

Long past his prime, Buck still regales anyone who will listen with tales of appearing on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” (61 times!) even though these days he’s performing feats for half-empty auditoriums in Bakersfield, Calif., and Akron, Ohio. Regardless of the city, he arrives with the hearty proclamation, “I love this town!” and an even more enthusiastic handshake, a repeated gag that isn’t particularly funny the first time.

He’s got the spiel down to a science by now, but he needs a new road manager and personal assistant. Law school dropout Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) answers his ad in hopes of gaining the life experience he needs to become a writer, and gets swept up in Buck’s sad, kitschy vortex.

Writer-director Sean McGinly relies too heavily on voiceover from Hanks to make observations that should be pretty obvious: “He was cheesy and there was no denying that, but he also had a sort of timeless charm that the audience really seemed to love.” Hanks continues to establish an agreeable on-screen presence reminiscent of his father, Tom — and the elder Hanks, a producer here, appears in a couple scenes as Troy’s disapproving father. They look and sound so much alike, seeing them play opposite each other is just eerie — but also kinda cute.

The younger Hanks is a reliable straight-man foil for the outlandish Malkovich, who gets persnickety about how much to tip the bellman and whether to give fans autographed photos in color or black and white. But Troy isn’t fleshed out terribly well, despite appearing in just about every scene. It’s as if he exists exclusively to serve as an empty vessel, an astonished set of eyes and ears, ingesting everything as he and Buck travel from town to town.

And here’s where McGinly’s script condescends to small-town America, rather than affectionately teasing it. The people who greet Buck and Troy at each destination are overfed, twangy or both — especially Debra Monk and Steve Zahn as the siblings who host them in Cincinnati. (She’s a member of the Red Hat Society, he wears a bushy mustache and a bolo tie.)

Things perk up when Emily Blunt arrives as a no-nonsense publicist assigned to help Buck promote an ambitious new trick in Cincinnati, “a very important event,” as he describes it. But when Buck pulls off the feat, jaunty music overwhelms the moment, which might have seemed genuinely creepy otherwise.

We wouldn’t dream of giving away his secret, though. Because you need some mystery in a movie that otherwise bangs you over the head with platitudes about the transformative power of believing in something impossible.