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Has-Been Mentalist Draws More Tricks From His Sleeve

The Great Buck Howard (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

“The Great Buck Howard” works because writer-director Sean McGinly had the good sense to cast John Malkovich as the title character, and because Mr. Malkovich knew he could do wonders with the role and said yes. Although the screenplay adopts the perspective of Troy (Colin Hanks), assistant to the past-his-prime mentalist Buck Howard, this movie belongs to its star. A cauldron of limitless energy, maniacal narcissism and full-throttle passion for his art, the character casts such a giant shadow over the production that the picture lives or dies based on the success of his portrayal. Thankfully, Mr. Malkovich makes him one of the standout characters in a unique, prestigious career.

Buck Howard, as he never stops reminding anyone who will listen, played “The Tonight Show” 61 times. But that was the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show;” and since Jay Leno took over, he’s been persona non grata. No matter; he fills his time in other ways, mostly by repeating his same old act in small community theaters everywhere from Cincinnati to Riverside. Troy, looking for a detour from the predictable law-school path forced upon him by his father (Tom Hanks), signs on to be Buck’s assistant. Soon, he finds himself catering to an egomaniac without anything left to be egomaniacal about.

Mr. McGinly renders the film with a light, breezy tone. He never dwells on the melancholia buried beneath Buck’s hyperactive exterior. Instead, his interest lies in perpetrating a loving tribute to the kitschier side of American pop culture, the poignant notion of a onetime celebrity chugging along well past his prime, and the romanticism in dropping off life’s predetermined trajectory to do something unexpected. Like its subject, “The Great Buck Howard” is most at home in the small community playhouses, nondescript backstage rooms and sterile hotel chains that populate the less glamorous parts of the country. The movie is made in the free spirit of such places, far from the epicenters of New York and Los Angeles but no less responsible for the development and promulgation of distinctly American cultural forms.

Still, Mr. Malkovich carries the picture with such gusto that it would be worth watching were it simply a one-man stage show. The actor disappears so thoroughly into this larger-than-life individual that one easily identifies the magnetic pull Buck holds over Troy and the reasons the latter stays around despite his boss’ me-first attitude and divo behavior. He’s the authority figure everyone has at some point in life, the one that overwhelms you with his outsized personality but leaves an indelible impact in the process. Mr. Malkovich affects the audience in a similar fashion, and “The Great Buck Howard” powerfully reminds us just how great he can be.


Opens on March 20 in the United States.

Written and directed by Sean McGinly; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Myron Kerstein; music by Blake Neely; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: John Malkovich (Buck Howard), Colin Hanks (Troy Gable), Emily Blunt (Valerie Brennan), Steve Zahn (Kenny) and Tom Hanks (Mr. Gable).


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