The Great Buck Howard

Playing mind games while stuck in Midwest

John Malkovich (second from right) plays the title role in ''The Great Buck Howard.'' The film also stars (from left) Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, and Steve Zahn. John Malkovich (second from right) plays the title role in ''The Great Buck Howard.'' The film also stars (from left) Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, and Steve Zahn.
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 20, 2009
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Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard" isn't actually about the magician of the title - who prefers the term mentalist, by the way. It's about Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), the ex-law student who takes a job as the personal assistant to Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a kind of prissy, verbally abusive, tantrum-prone Amazing Kreskin whose best days appear to be behind him. It's another coming-of-age story about a young man who can't figure himself out.

The movie follows Troy and Buck on the road (Bakersfield, Calif., Akron, Ohio, somewhere in Wisconsin), repeating variations of the same routines and backstage arguments before settling in for a long stint in Cincinnati, where the movie coughs up some mockery of Midwesterners: They can't host to Buck's satisfaction. They can't do proper CPR. They misspell names on the marquee. Debra Monk and Steve Zahn, who play guides to the pair, are the movie's chief targets of condescension, a dim, bumbling, talkative sister and brother - Buck prefers the term hayseed, by the way.

Showbiz competence flies in from Los Angeles, represented by Valerie (Emily Blunt), a snooty publicist whose disdain for Cincinnati seems commensurate with her obligatory attraction to Troy. Forget this washed-up mentalist, she basically tells Troy. She's got real showbiz connections.

From the standpoint of entertainment, the only excuse for watching the movie make Troy's dreams come true is Malkovich, who smiles and grins as much as I can recall him ever doing. He finds the juncture where his comedic intensity meets Philip Seymour Hoffman's. Monk, Zahn, and Tom Hanks, who plays Troy's dad (he's Colin's dad, too), also have some moments. But the movie seems designed to demonstrate that McGinly can direct very good actors, whether or not he has the imagination to give them anything interesting to do.

"Buck Howard" also suggests the work of someone who has never left Hollywood to go farther than the Sundance Film Festival. The quirks are from a handbook (a law-school drop out, mentalism). Not enough feels connected to anything that wasn't gleaned from a hundred so-so independent movies before it. Even the music feels designed to inform the right people that McGinly knows what's what. (Inexplicably, the movie ends with a clip of the earnest band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah mewling away.)

If it's cable dramas and music videos McGinly wants to make, this movie will probably keep him busy. But he seems too young to be working with so little risk, verve, style, youth, or creative purpose. This is an old man's movie, without an old man's experience. Despite McGinly's stated affection for Kreskin (the movie ends with a written appreciation of him), there's nothing personal about it. It's the movie equivalent of handing us a business card.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD Written and directed by: Sean McGinly

Starring: Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, Emily Blunt, Debra Monk, Steve Zahn, and Tom Hanks

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: PG (some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference)

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