Troy Gable (Colin Hanks
), a recent law school dropout in Los Angeles, is searching for a job when he comes across a personal assistant position advertised in the local paper. He attends the interview for the position at a local restaurant, where he meets and is struck by the Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a waning mentalist. Although skeptical of Buck, Troy is convinced the job will be an exciting change from his ordinarily mundane life and goes on the road with Buck playing for half-empty houses in small towns and cities across the country.
Although Buck can be prickly and harsh and his act is corny, he always impresses the small town crowds and Troy sees Buck is truly in his element. For his signature trick, Buck's performance fee is hidden in the audience while Buck waits in his dressing room and when he returns, he picks it out of the crowd. He never fails.
One night Troy's father (Tom Hanks) appears, angry to find his son - who he thought was still in law school - is working as Buck's glorified gofer. After the ensuing drama, Troy is ready to bow to his father's wishes but Buck asks him to stick it out a while longer. He has a "spectacular" trick planned guaranteeing his long-awaited comeback.
The big event is planned for Cincinnati and Buck hires a big New York PR firm to handle it. Buck is upset when, instead of sending the top publicist he was expecting, the firm sends junior publicist Valerie (Emily Blunt). Although Buck is dismissive of her, Valerie and Troy hit it off and wind up spending the night together.
On the day of the event, Valerie seems to prove herself in Buck's eyes - she has gathered a large group of reporters to cover Buck as he attempts to set a world record by putting an entire room full of people to sleep. However, just as things get going and participants start falling asleep, the reporters' cell-phones begin ringing: Jerry Springer (talk-show host and former mayor of Cincinnati) has been in an automobile accident and in a rush, the reporters abandon Buck to cover the breaking news. Valerie and Troy turn from the fleeing reporters and are stunned to see Buck has accomplished his feat: the entire room lies asleep on the floor but there is no one to witness it. Furious, Buck berates Valerie for not having any "national media" present to witness the event. Stung and angry, Valerie quits on the spot but before she leaves she hands Buck a pre-release copy of a national news magazine containing an interview with Buck. Instead of the favorable puff piece he was expecting, the article paints Buck as a has-been, tyrant and fraud. Troy rushes after Valerie as Buck makes his way through the crowd of sleepers, commanding them to wake up. Troy and Valerie are interrupted by a scream and they rush back inside to find Buck has collapsed.
Later, Troy sits with Buck at his bedside in the hospital. Buck is admitting his career is, indeed, finished when he hears a snatch of the local newscast on the television. Although no reporters were present, word has gotten out about Buck's trick that afternoon. Clicking through the different channels, the story is on every one.
Suddenly, Buck is once again a hot commodity, appearing on the cover of national magazines and on talk-shows. However, when he is "bumped" from "The Tonight Show", he decides to accept an offer to bring his act to Las Vegas. But today's Vegas bears little resemblance to the Vegas Buck once played. His corny, "homey" act is retooled - made flashier and glitzier and Buck, for the first time, seems uncomfortable and nervous. On the night of his big debut, everything seems to be going fine and Buck prepares to close with his signature trick. Only this time, for the first time in his long career, Buck is unable to find the money. And just like that, his comeback is over and Buck disappears.
Troy goes back to Los Angeles. Valerie has found him an entry-level job as a writer's assistant on a popular television show. Its a great opportunity but Troy finds himself missing Buck. One day he spots an announcement in the paper for a performance by "The Great Buck Howard" at a nearby community arts center. He drives to the performance and meets Buck in his dressing room. Troy tells Buck he has heard a rumor that Buck had a secret accomplice who helped him with the money-finding trick, but wants to know what happened in Vegas. Why couldn't Buck find the money?
Buck confesses he realized Vegas wasn't what he really wanted. He would rather be on the road, playing for small crowds in small communities for people who "got" him and his act. Buck tells Troy to stick around and watch the show, he'll have a special "surprise" for him.
Troy settles in to watch the show for the first time as a member of the audience and as he watches it unfold (now stripped of the glitz added in Vegas) he realizes the setting, the audience are perfect for Buck. The audience adores him and Buck is enjoying himself immensely. When it comes time for the finale, Buck makes an announcement and addresses the rumor he has always had help with the money-finding trick. He calls for volunteers from the audience and brings them up onstage to examine his ears for a listening device, then has a hood placed over his head as the money is rehidden in the audience. Troy watches as Buck moves among the audience members and a feeling of dread washes over him as Buck looks just as lost as he did that night in Vegas until suddenly, Buck stops and walks directly to an older gentleman. With a smile at Troy, Buck asks the man for his cash. The man denies he has it at first but on Buck's insistence, hands Buck his fee. Buck has done it again. [D-Man2010]