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When a law school dropout answers an advertisement to be a personal assistant he unknowingly signs on to work for a belligerent has-been magician struggling to resurrect his career. This leads to a journey across the country staging the comeback of a lifetime. Written by
The Great Buck Howard is not a great movie, but it is sometimes a sweet movie. Deliberately pushing the nostalgia button, the film bathes in the lost star power of a once famous "mentalist" Buck Howard (John Malkovich), who best represents the simple days of magicians like the Amazing Kreskin (the inspiration for Buck's character). As with Kreskin, Buck once delighted the late night shows, Vegas venues, and small towns such as Akron, Ohio.
Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) drops out of law school to become a writer (his uninspired voice over narration notwithstanding), but first he becomes Howard's assistant, much to the chagrin of his father (Tom Hanksyes, that Hanks and that real-life father). Troy gets plenty of material from his boss, a dime-store vaudeville diva who yet displays a self confidence and pride to help the most cynical of us see the need to push on in the face of adversity, not the least of which is becoming passé.
Along the way we might learn a thing or two about professional integrity, true grit, and the possibility of love in all the odd places. Troy seems to learn those lessons although Hanks so underplays it's hard to tell. Director Sean McGinly apparently can't coax anything more than dimpled smiles from Hanks, whose similarity to his dad is both physical and temperamental. "Bland" is another word that comes to mind although I found the younger Hanks more animated on the London stage.
More passionate is publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt, reminding us of egos in Devil Wears Prada), with whom Troy must work and love. But, hey, even Malkovich underplays for this one, although his aging egotist is still impressive with the actor's patented impatience and theatrical outbursts. It's just that the underwhelming script doesn't allow the principals to rise above clichés, and the framing device of the relationship between narrator and mentalist goes nowhere (As it didn't for Gatsby's Nick either, I suppose).
It's a small world of small town vaudeville, fading but eloquent about talent and the need to be who you really are. Not easy, that.
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