The Great Buck Howard

Starring John Malkovich, Colin Hanks,

and Emily Blunt

Directed by Sean McGinly

Rated (PG)

Buck Howard (John Malkovich) is a dapper, silver-haired “mentalist” whose claim to fame are his 61 appearances on The Tonight Show performing feats of hypnotism, mind reading, and light comedic patter. His smooth-as-budda, über-professional delivery is the kind more often seen on cruise ships and in hotel lounges than in today’s too-cool-for-school, insiderish talk show culture.

Howard is the kind of mothball entertainer devoured, masticated, and spit out by the irony generation, more interested in the rock ‘n’ roll magic of David Blaine or the self-effacing meta-schtick of Jon Stewart than the creaky stage act of a washed-up mentalist. Howard is now reduced to playing half-full auditoriums presided over by cheery, chubby women in third-tier American cities.

Though he’s fallen from show-biz grace, Howard retains the ticks of a guy on top of the world circa 1968: the dementedly enthusiastic pumping handshake, the taste for dark-as-night steak restaurants, the old-school pocket squares, the requisite brandy in the dressing room. Howard represents a dead form of professionalism: a solicitousness toward women, a cleric’s love for his flock (aka audience), virtually lost in the above-it-all scandal culture of today.

Howard is a fascinating character — inspired as the film’s coda informs us, by real-life mentalist the Amazing Kreskin (with a nod to Jerry Lewis). But he’s also a symbol. Even in a film titled The Great Buck Howard, Howard takes second billing. The real centerpiece of The Great Buck Howard is not the washed-up mentalist, but the film’s narrator Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a promising young lad who has dropped out of law school — the only career path his father will accept — to pursue a purgatory employment as Howard’s stage manager.

It’s a job that requires not only cuing Howard’s entrance music and lighting cues but also tossing his Cobb salad, hanging up his pants, and performing other duties more wifely than postgrad. And the job, as his predecessor informs him, has a dark side. Howard is a prima donna, a perfectionist, and a control-freak who expects to be treated like a high-roller in the podunk towns where he performs.

Malkovich has often done a remarkable job with cads portraying gentlemen (Dangerous Liaisons) and attention-craving sociopaths (Colour Me Kubrick), but Howard is a more sympathetically human creation: a love-starved loner whose work is his life.

The Great Buck Howard has a pleasantly rueful approach. Instead of the scatological humor in raucous bromances like I Love You, Man, The Great Buck Howard offers a more low-key thoughtfulness about how success is defined.

But part of The Great Buck Howard‘s refreshing modesty is also a partial liability. Though wholesome and unthreateningly boyish in the mode of his famous father, Colin Hanks lacks dad’s charisma. It’s a bit of a shock when fast-talking Manhattan talent wrangler Valerie (Emily Blunt) flies into town during Howard’s Cincinnati gig and keeps chiding Troy for squandering himself on a job that is beneath him. Little in Troy’s demeanor convincingly conveys the promise that he could be doing better things.

But there is nevertheless something in Troy that will undoubtedly resonate with many in the audience who by virtue of age, the economy, or dramatic life changes, have had to appraise what they want from life.

Troy is at a crossroads, and Howard is what you might call his transitional object, the person who will help him make the adjustment from childhood to adulthood. Howard represents love of work as an admirable goal, something different from his father’s (played in a cameo by Tom Hanks) emphasis on an impressive paycheck. But Howard represents something more ethereal, too: happiness as more a matter of belief — a self-hypnotism — than of observable reality.

With his changing cast of young, good-looking male stage managers, part of Howard’s “act” (and fuel for the rumors that he is gay) may be hiring the kind of young men who buoy his belief in the virtue of what he’s doing, who seem to validate in their very presence the vitality of his work.

Despite the crummy auditoriums, despite the out-of-fashion act, and the faded youth, Howard’s self-willed happiness is his greatest feat of mentalism. When cracks in Howard’s shell appear, it is because someone has reminded him of the shoddiness of what he’s up to: the attention-starved Cincinnati theater manager who elbows her way onstage to sing a pitiful song before Howard’s act; the crass Vegas audience member who wants to know how much Howard is being paid. A panicked, sickened expression passes over Howard’s face at such moments, when his bubble of self-delusion momentarily bursts.

Howard’s form of outmoded razzle-dazzle stands in direct opposition to our reigning culture of skepticism where a fat paycheck is the only goal and cynicism about anything as corny as stage presence is de rigueur. Howard is a dinosaur, and dinosaurs don’t do well in an America that demands talent-past-its-prime step aside and make way for the next big thing.

The Great Buck Howard underscores a cruel fact of America’s celebrity worship — that as much as we revere fame, we mock and brutalize those who cling to it when their time in the sun is over.