The Great Buck Howard contains the seeds of an unsentimental, darkly funny character study about an effete relic of a bygone show-biz era at war with a business and world that has passed him by. Unfortunately, it’s buried inside a sentimental, achingly conventional coming-of-age story about a bland twentysomething who drops out of law school with vague plans to become a writer, and stumbles into a job that changed his life. The weak coming-of-age half of the film centers on Colin Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, who produced the film, pops up to play Colin’s disapproving father, and dipped into his magical rolodex to secure big-name cameos from Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, and the guy from the Police Academy movies who makes funny noises. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the junior Hanks gets much more screen time than his clichéd character merits.
Hanks stars as an earnest, rudderless young man who scores a job as the personal assistant—and later, manager/right-hand man—of a magician/illusionist based on the Amazing Kreskin. In a performance much better than the film deserves, John Malkovich plays the title character as a preening, smarmy egomaniac, a veteran of countless Tonight Show appearances reduced to playing tiny little theaters in hick towns where C-list entertainers like himself are still treated like royalty.
Like That Thing You Do!,another product of Hanks’ Playtone production company, Buck Howard has a nice feel for its tacky, second-rate show-business milieu—a rinky-dink world of telethons, small towns starved for entertainment, and entertainers whose careers have been in freefall since Hollywood Squares went off the air. Unfortunately, this richly observed world serves largely as a backdrop for a bland yarn about a nice young man learning valuable life lessons from his eccentric employer and a more worldly love interest (a wasted Emily Blunt). Malkovich refuses to make his arrogant, prickly has-been remotely likeable, but the movie isn’t as uncompromising as his performance, which gets drowned in a sea of schmaltz.