Buck Howard, the fictional 'mentalistâ?� (not 'magicianâ?�) at the heart of this new comedy from writer-director Sean McGinly, is all about the details: color glossy photos go to the fans he likes, while the annoying ones get a black-and-white; he demands to be introduced by a recording rather than whoever is hosting his appearances; no matter what podunk town he's performing in, he exclaims, 'I love this town!â?� and makes sure his audience knows he means it. The Great Buck Howard, the personality, always puts on an entertaining show despite his dwindling Johnny Carson'era fame.
If only McGinly and his film possessed the same dedication to the crowd. McGinly based the film on his own experience as a young assistant to the Amazing Kreskin, a scene (and scenario) that would seem a natural birthing place for great comedy and hints of tragedy. In Howard, McGinly and the formidable John Malkovich as Buck Howard provide some of those moments ' the magician's overeager hand-shaking that involves every muscle of the arm and his insistent, possibly merited hatred of Jay Leno ' but they don't back it up with tension of any kind.
As the film's narrator (and McGinly's stand-in), Colin Hanks is blank-faced and bored, relegated to standing on the sidelines both literally and plot-wise, watching Malkovich/Howard warmly and with affection. But we don't get a sense of where the affection comes from. McGinly's script plays like a chronology of events and leaves no room for heart-to-heart bonding between Buck Howard and Hanks' law-school dropout, Troy Gabel.
Two actors in particular stand out in the film because they don't seem to belong: One is the jaw-dropping Emily Blunt, who develops her character from the inside out, a trait that contrasts unflatteringly with Hanks' empty vessel. The other, Hanks' real-life father, Tom Hanks, upstages his son with hardly a word as Gabel's disappointed father. Until Colin develops a screen presence of his own, Tom would do well to stay far away.