With his mesmeric voice and big, boggly eyes, John Malkovich is the ideal choice to play an over-the-hill mentalist in "The Great Buck Howard." Buck was once a fixture on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (61 appearances, as he never tires of reminding people). Now he's reduced to playing out-of-the-loop community centers and half-filled small-town auditoriums. Still, Buck is a trooper – his first words upon stepping into a new gig are always "I love this town!" – and there's something poignant, and almost revivifying, about his gumption.
The movie, which was written and directed by Sean McGinly, is consistently good as long as it centers on Buck and his seriocomic travails. Buck has had a lifetime of embracing, and fending off, fans, and he gets to do quite a bit of both here. He still dreams of hitting it big once again – in Vegas and on "The Tonight Show" – but he's smart enough to know that he's something of an antique. His ironclad routines, such as guessing secret numbers, hypnotizing patrons, and locating a stash of hidden cash in the audience, are so old school they're practically antediluvian. And yet they continue to impress.
In the end, Buck is a mentalist who does not know much about his own mind. For that, he employs an assistant, Troy (Colin Hanks, son of Tom, who coproduced and has a cameo as Troy's – what else? – father). This mentor-rookie relationship is rather hackneyed and is reminiscent of other, better movies, such as "My Favorite Year," about showbiz divas and their young lackeys. Colin Hanks is a pleasantly vapid presence and he's no match for Malkovich or even Emily Blunt, who steals every one of her scenes as a wised-up publicist who doesn't fall for Buck's blather.
About halfway through the movie McGinly unfortunately dispenses with comic cynicism in favor of hearts and flowers, but no amount of sentimentality can erase Malkovich's brio. Grade: B (Rated PG for some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference.)