Movie Reviews: The Great Buck HowardWhen the irresistibly appealing Emily Blunt shows up about a third of the way through The Great Buck Howard, it's impossible not to wish she had been given Colin Hanks' role. The wholly uninteresting Hanks plays Troy Gable, personal assistant and road manager for has-been mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Law-school dropout Troy didn't even know who Buck was before he started working for him, but he eventually comes to feel sympathy for the delusional egomaniac.
Buck promises Troy that "some very big things are about to happen" in Cincinnati. He hires a New York agency to send a publicist there to line up media coverage for an event Buck promises will put him back on the entertainment A-list. When Blunt's unseasoned and unenthusiastic character Valerie arrives, the aging Buck proclaims, "You're practically an embryo!"
Valerie has a carelessly sexy, seen-it-all way about her that attracts Troy but makes Buck doubt her professionalism. When it appears his big day may turn out to be a disaster, Buck finds himself back in the limelight for a reason even he couldn't foresee.
One of the problems with director Sean McGinly's screenplay is that Buck does impossible tricks without any apparent trickery. His most impressive feat is finding his fee for each of his gigs at the end of the night, no matter where the money has been hidden. He also manages to hypnotize several hundred people at once—again, completely on the up and up. Yet despite possessing this potentially enriching gift, Buck is not fabulously wealthy from Lotto winnings, hasn't been on The Tonight Show since Johnny Carson retired, and is reduced to playing poorly attended shows in minor markets.
That kind of irony could have been the basis for a light and literally "magic-realist" fable, but The Great Buck Howard is more of a strangely depressing farce. Buck's nasty belligerence and theatrically phony bonhomie (he has a habit of nearly detaching people's arms from their bodies when he shakes hands) is more off-putting than amusing. Troy, whose talky voiceover narration prevents the story from unfolding naturally, is so bland that it's impossible to believe Valerie would end up in bed with him. And Steve Zahn and Debra Monk play their supporting characters—two Cincinnati rubes hosting Buck during his visit to their city—far too broadly.
If Blunt had played Buck's assistant, she and Malkovich could have played off of each other as a pair of sardonic smartasses, maybe even sharing some weird May-December sparks. With Hanks in the role, this is just the story of a dull guy observing a self-obsessed one.
Too bad nobody used their mental abilities to figure that out during casting.
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