Even though his name is The Great Buck Howard instead of The Amazing Kreskin, it’s pretty apparent who John Malkovich’s character is based on in this bittersweet, unlikely-buddy flick. For, like Kreskin, Buck is a mentalist long past his glory days when he was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show and other popular TV variety programs. The two also have in common an usually-strong handshake and a stage finale in which they invariably find a wad of money hidden on a member of the audience.
I did say this is a buddy vehicle, and it co-stars Colin Hanks as Troy Gabel, a 2nd year law student who drops out of school at the point of departure without telling his father (Tom Hanks) to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Soon forced to face the reality of having to earn a living, he applies for a position as the personal assistant to Buck Howard, an entertainment icon who has been reduced to performing in modest, half-filled venues in tiny towns all over the country.
Gone for Buck are the opportunities to appear on late night television and to play posh hotspots on the strip in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t humbled him one iota, which means Troy is essentially stuck in seedy motels with this pompous egomaniac 24/7.
Then, when he’s in the midst of rethinking the fateful decision to take this job, who should show up unannounced but his understandably irritated dad. But any chance Mr. Gabel has of talking his emotionally-estranged son off the road and into returning to L.A. ends once Buck hires another assistant in a cutie pie named Valerie (Emily Blunt). She and Troy fall for each other at first sight which makes taking abuse from their delusional boss a hell of a lot easier.
The Great Buck Howard was written and directed by Sean McGinly whose unflattering portrait of his subject makes for a riveting cinematic experience. Its closing credits acknowledge a debt of gratitude owed Kreskin as a source of inspiration.
Of course, Mr. Malkovich deserves considerable credit, too, as he turns in yet another compelling performance worth the price of admission alone as a pathetic has been who has no idea he’s washed up. Among the members of the stellar support cast are Steve Zahn, B.J. Hendricks, Griffin Dunne, Ricky Jay along with amusing cameos by such trivia answers as Gary Coleman, George Takei and Tom Arnold.
When you throw the chance to watch the real-life Hanks as a father-son duo into the mix, you have all the ingredients for sleeper hit that can’t miss in indie art houses.