A smoothly turned-out entertainment comes down with an unfortunate case of the warm-and-fuzzies.
A smoothly turned-out entertainment centered around an Amazing Kreskin-style mentalist comes down with an unfortunate case of the warm-and-fuzzies in “The Great Buck Howard.” Behind-the-curtains comedy reps an amusing showcase for John Malkovich’s diva-like theatrics in the title role, but writer-director Sean McGinly’s decision to frame the story as a relationship movie, as Buck’s impressionable young assistant deals with some very familiar life issues, tilts the comic seesaw toward sentiment over satire. Backed by Tom Hanks’ producing cachet, this earnest, accessible picture could have wide, multigenerational audience appeal but will require careful handling to work any B.O. magic.
Of course, the Great Buck Howard (Malkovich) is no magician — he’s a mentalist, and he performs effects, not tricks. Famous for having appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” 61 times (a fact he brings up repeatedly), Buck represents a fading tradition of old-fashioned stage performers: He now travels to small cities across the country, performing his act for mostly old ladies at backwater auditoriums.
Along for the ride is Buck’s new assistant, Troy (Colin Hanks, son of Tom), a law-school dropout looking for some life experience. He gets more than his fair share, thanks to his boss’ irrational demands, unpredictable fits of temper and deluded sense of his own importance. Yet Troy is also genuinely charmed by Buck and his act, which, though corny and quaint (hypnotism, guessing secret numbers, finding money hidden in the audience), never quite loses its how-did-he-do-that sense of wonder.
Pic builds a nice head of comic steam early on, carried along by McGinly’s sprightly pacing and tart dialogue (most of it delivered by Malkovich with exquisite condescension), before settling down in Cincinnati, where Buck is preparing his big comeback. Naturally, he must weather all manner of setbacks and insults — indifferent press coverage; a withering magazine piece; tacky, eager-to-please locals (Debra Monk, Steve Zahn) — and refuses to accept that he’s become an obsolete “fossil,” in the words of his previous assistant (Adam Scott, who escapes too early).
Joining the team in Cincinnati — and giving the film another jolt of energy — is whip-smart publicist Valerie (Emily Blunt), who promptly jumps Troy’s bones and alone refuses to massage Buck’s fragile ego. Blunt’s presence, always welcome, underscores pic’s passing resemblance to “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was similarly predicated on the relationship between a monstrous tyrant and a much-put-upon young aide. Here, however, the aide is so forgiving, such a willing doormat, that Colin Hanks, though pleasant enough to watch, can’t make Troy a compelling foil opposite Malkovich’s delicious scene-stealing antics.
“The Great Buck Howard” at once mocks and celebrates a certain type of old-school showman who’s chronically incapable of adapting to today’s talkshow circuits and demo-targeting focus groups, and it clearly wants to sweep auds up in a wave of nostalgia for this dying breed. Pic succeeds to an impressive degree, but there are moments when McGinly pushes his luck and yanks the viewer’s heartstrings: We’re told Troy is an aspiring writer, but if the gush of sentimental voiceover that closes the pic is any indication, he may not yet have found his true vocation.
Tom Hanks makes two brief, effective appearances as Troy’s sternly disapproving dad (of course), and his involvement with the production likely had something to do with pic’s parade of cameos from the likes of Jon Stewart, Martha Stewart, Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa, Tom Arnold and, in an amusing in-joke, George Takei of “Star Trek” fame.
Pic is well-crafted from top to bottom, balancing its glossy Hollywood sheen with the mostly nondescript locales where Buck takes his act. Zippy opening-credits sequence smartly whets the viewer’s appetite for more.