By Willie Krischke – July 15, 2009
“The Great Buck Howard” is a cheesy, occasionally charming little movie about a law student (Colin Hanks) who drops out and becomes the road manager for a magician (John Malkovich.) The magician – or “mentalist” as he calls himself — was a regular on Johnny Carson for years, and still thinks he’s a big deal, though Jay Leno never calls. (“Who is this Leno character?” he rants. Imagine what he’ll think of Conan O’Brien.) He is self-absorbed, preening, and tempermental, but puts on a good show every night, and his charm is the main reason Hanks sticks around. Also, there’s a girl.
It never really feels like “Buck Howard” knows what it wants to be about; is it Hanks, and his journey to discover what he wants to be instead of a lawyer? Well, no, because he never really discovers anything; his character doesn’t seem to grow or change or learn at all over the course of the movie. Is it supposed to be a darkly comic look at a washed up and deluded performer, sort of “The Wrestler” with mind-reading and coin tricks? Well, no, because Hanks is front and center most of the time.
Colin Hanks gives a performance worthy of an actor whose father pulled strings to get him the role. And I’ll say this about Malkovich: for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have that sneaking suspicion that underneath it all, he’s secretly a serial killer. Tom Hanks shows up briefly, in weird meta-moments, as the disapproving father, and Ricky Jay, who shows up in any movie that has anything to do with magic tricks whatsoever, makes his standard appearance. In fact, there are a whole parade of cameo appearances – from Jon Stewart to Tom Arnold – that smack of Forrest Gump calling in favors.
“The Great Buck Howard” passes the time, much like a cable movie would. It doesn’t feel terribly ambitious, and that might be its saving grace, as it doesn’t accomplish much.