"The Great Buck Howard," an affectionate though flawed comedy, stars John Malkovich as a mentalist who once charmed audiences with his logic-defying ability to read minds or hypnotize volunteers plucked from the audience. At his peak, Buck filled venues around the country and appeared 61 times on "The Tonight Show" in the Johnny Carson era.
But that was then.
When we meet Buck, still dapper in his tricked-out polyester suits and given to making grand entrances, Carson has long since been replaced by Leno and the legendary mind reader is on a sad slide to obscurity, though great effort is expended in making sure he will be the last to know.
Into the strong wind of Buck's denial steps Colin Hanks' Troy, a law-school dropout unsure of what to do next with his life. Trailing this odd couple of declining star and young Hollywood wannabe, writer-director Sean McGinly takes us on a nostalgia-infused tour of those forgotten back alleys of showbiz where small-time acts try to survive in a modern day of special effects, pyrotechnics and giant flashing screens.
Though Malkovich is mostly revered for his dramatic skills, he always works a lovely little sleight of hand with comedy, understated where he is usually not, a softness erasing his hard edges, smiles that are sly and knowing rather than wickedly sarcastic -- think "Being John Malkovich," not "Con Air." So this film's whimsical tone should have served his talents well, and there are times in "Buck Howard" where you catch sight of them. But they are fleeting.
What Malkovich really needs are actors opposite him with a few more tricks up their sleeve. Hanks exudes a steady, nice-guyness, a counter-balance to the outsized Buck, but he just can't hold the screen when Malkovich is on it, which is most of the time.
Much of the fault rests with McGinly, who has created a field of characters who are all a bit too nice. Even Emily Blunt as the high-octane New York publicist who's been temporarily saddled with Buck can't muster that core of irritated pompousness that she used to good effect in "The Devil Wears Prada." She seems more bored by Buck, and her tumble into bed with Troy? That's boring too.
When Buck gets angry at Troy, as is always the case with stars and their assistants, there is none of the lacerating, soul-destroying verbal abuse we saw in "Swimming With Sharks," another film that looked at the Hollywood assistants game, though through the prism of a talent agency.
Which isn't to say a movie must be mean to be entertaining, but any good story needs tension and conflict. The film's most electric moments come when Tom Hanks briefly drops in as Troy's dad (Hanks is Colin's real dad), furious that his son has left law school to baby-sit a has-been.
There are some nice moments to be found, particularly when Malkovich lets you see past the bravado of Buck to the man inside. What you find is someone surprisingly content in his later years with a place in a smaller spotlight. "I love this town," he says at every stop, and you believe him every time.
MPAA rating: PG for some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In selected theaters