Do You Believe in Malkovich Magic?

the great buck howard 2h Do You Believe in Malkovich Magic? The Great Buck Howard
Running time 87 minutes
Written and directed by Sean McGinly
Starring Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, Emily Blunt

In The Great Buck Howard, John Malkovich finally plays one of his most accessible roles in one of his least pretentious films. I don’t even like movies about young mentalists, mediums, magicians and flim-flams, much less aging ones. But the mystery career of Mr. Malkovich gets a welcome boost here, as he plays a genial but temperamental has-been mind reader who has plummeted from Vegas headliner and 61 appearances on Johnny Carson in the good old days to occasional gigs at community centers in Stockton and Bakersfield, signing off by speaking the words to his theme song, “What the World Needs Now.” He should have retired years ago.

But like the Amazing Kreskin, on whom the film is obviously based, Buck’s spirit refuses to waft into the mist of ’60s talk shows and county fairs. He needs fresh energy to promote his handshakes and trademark “I love this town!” audience greetings, and jump-start his faded celebrity status. So he hires a recent law school dropout and wannabe writer named Troy (played with fresh, sweet-faced naïveté by promising newcomer Colin Hanks), who signs up as a combination road manager and personal assistant with the aid of a tough, brassy publicist (Emily Blunt). Together, they mastermind a scheme to get Buck an appearance on Jay Leno, but as rotten luck would have it, another guest (Tom Arnold, of all people) takes up too much time and Buck gets bumped. Undaunted, Troy propels Buck toward renewed success, and despite the objections of his dad (a guest appearance by the actor’s real-life father, Tom Hanks), he eventually helps Buck back into the spotlight and learns, on the ride, a few unforgettable lessons in life that will impact his own future. But fate has more tricks up its raveled sleeve than a magician has rabbits, and Buck’s new star-attraction spot in Vegas collapses when, for the first time in 40 years, his most famous trick (finding his salary hidden in the showroom) fails.

There’s nothing special about The Great Buck Howard, and I kept asking myself, if it is actually based on the life and career of the Amazing Kreskin, why not just make a movie about Kreskin himself? Still, the elements that form the balance between the pompous vaudevillian and his long-suffering assistant are neatly collated by writer-director Sean McGinly; I predict a big-time career for Colin Hanks (who is currently co-starring with Jane Fonda in the Broadway play 33 Variations); and the stew is seasoned with enough appealing peripheral show business nuts  (Steve Zahn and Debra Monk as an idiotic brother-sister team who drive Buck around in Cincinnati are especially winning) to keep you amused. Mr. Malkovich is more animated than usual.  Wearing a blond-tinted wig, he even looks better, and his voice sound less like a dial tone. Maybe he’s been taking B-12 shots.

rreed@observer.com