The illusionist Buck Howard, played with relish by John Malkovich and inspired by The Amazing Kreskin, scaled to the summit of his career during the age when ventriloquists and plate spinners had a prominent place on prime-time television. In the 1970s, talk shows were still synonymous with variety shows and the last vestiges of vaudeville and cabaret found a spot on the bill. Presently, he boasts loudly that he was a guest 61 times on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” eager to add that he never graced the telecast when the inferior Jay Leno hosted; the irascible Buck, who won’t deign to call himself a “magician,” conveniently conceals that his last appearance on Carson’s couch was a decade before Jay debuted.
In this winning comedy from director and screenwriter Sean McGinly, Buck once again undertakes his mammoth, perpetual touring schedule into the overlooked markets in the unburnished venues where the entertainment of Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore telecasts still captivates. In a one-man show he performs sleight of hand illusions, group hypnosis and even a lounge act interlude with piano key tinkling while sing whispering Jackie De Shannon’s classic, “What the World Needs Now.” To each audience, even in the most modest of theaters in the most drab of burgs, he gushes, “I love this town.”
Malkovich inhabits the character with great physical zeal with moppish hair, Allen Ludden’s sports coat collection, and enthusiastic, rotator cuff dislocating handshakes. Genial to his fans, his offstage viper delivery underscores a sneery, leery sensibility and a constant befuddlement with modern entertainment tastes. Like his turn in “Burn After Reading” there’s always the hint of menace in Malkovich’s comic characterizations.
Into this seeming time warp enters Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a young man fleeing mid-semester from law school who answers a print ad and, as someone who’s just absconded from the future his father so carefully planned for him, readily takes up the challenge to circumnavigate the country serving as Buck’s personal assistant. Instead of a predictable generation gap tussle arising between the two, Troy quietly observes the prickly, particular eccentricity of the late middle aged performer on the road.
They are joined by a strong collective of supporting actors with Ricky Jay as Buck’s empathic manager, Emily Blunt as a bemused public relations hack, Griffin Dunne as a curious television star and Steve Zahn as an overzealous, sycophantic fan; no one plays the friendly doofus with as much earnest sincerity as Zahn. Tom Hanks, who served as a producer on the film, fumes, coincidentally, as Troy’s father. The likable and well-cast Colin Hanks comes in a clear second though to his Pops in their on-screen debates.
McGinly keeps “The Great Buck Howard” ticking along with the breezy, finger-snapping tempo of a variety show as an extraordinary stunt catapults Buck back into mainstream consciousness. The film mines several hysterical moments from awkward television appearances with Regis, Kelly, Conan and Jon Stewart. The new found fame leads the itinerant performer to a permanent room in Vegas. But Buck quickly finds that his magical inspiration doesn’t work in Vegas. (Not necessarily such a bad thing.)
But then something quite endearing happens. Buck returns to his exhaustive touring of the hinterlands, Troy leaves Buck’s employ to become a writer, and the irony evaporates. Buck truly appreciates his audience. He doesn’t begrudge or loathe them. They adore him and he reciprocates the ardor. When Troy comes back as an audience member, he finds himself engrossed by Buck’s performance, and rooting for the curmudgeon in a vulnerable career moment. There’s a sweetness to these final scenes; it’s a robust reminder that talent is nestled even in the chintzy, that there’s skill in the schmaltz, and being sappy isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a sap.
Despite a marquee name as a producer and performer, a cast of household faves and a charming story, “The Great Buck Howard” has opened in minuscule fashion, playing to at most 64 theaters during its three weeks in release, with only a modest number to be added in the next month or so. It seems that the film will vanish without much notice; it will be one of the more wistful disappearing acts this year.