How can a film that features a lofty tribute to The Amazing Kreskin before the end credits go wrong? Well, in Sean McGinly's sweet and mushy comedy The Great Buck Howard, the film doesn't really go wrong... but then it doesn't really go right either.
The film celebrates the D-list world of third-rate celebrities, celebrities whose popularity has waned, whose 15 minutes of fame were over a long time ago, with one-night stands not in Vegas or L.A., but Bakersfield and Akron.
John Malkovich, the film's main delight, feasts upon his role as Buck Howard, in a joyful performance on par with his gluttonous work in Color Me Kubrick and Being John Malkovich. Buck Howard is a showbiz pro -- no matter how shoddy the local venue -- performing to half-filled auditoriums as a mentalist (he gets touchy when he's called a magician), greeting the audience with an effusive "I love this town!" Buck regales the crowd with his cornball mentalist shtick, sings "What the World Needs Now," and, in a stunning climax, psychically locates his pay hidden on the person of an anonymous audience member. This brings down the house with a standing ovation.
Into the world of The Great Buck Howard drops Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), a law school escapee who heads for L.A. to become a writer -- much to the chagrin of his father (Tom Hanks). As with all writers, ultimately he needs a job to eat and answering an ad gets him a job as Howard's road manager, reveling in an existence he couldn't have imagined in law school.
And sadly, this is where the film goes astray. Rather than concentrate on Buck Howard's antediluvian variety show circuit, McGinly focuses the story around Troy's tiresome coming-of-age tale of finding himself, which was old hat way back when My Favorite Year came out. McGinly compounds his mistake by a turgid voice over narration by Troy ("Buck had a timeless charm that the audience seemed to love") that intrudes on every scene, telegraphing to the audience how they should react. This is further accented by an annoying music score by Blake Neely so shrill it recalls the musical bludgeonings of the late Miles Goodman.
McGinly also doesn't trust his performers. Rather than have the actors interact in two shots (a film technique rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs) he shoots mostly in one shots -- action/reaction -- so there is no sense of character connection, nor a sense of time or place. The film is shot like it's an especially wacky episode of All My Children.
In spite of it all, The Great Buck Howard comes through in the spritely performances of Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt (as the token love interest), and a whole coven of cameos of washed up performers like Gary Coleman, Jack Carter, Michael Winslow, and, in a hilarious running gag, George Takei. But this is Malkovich's film, and when he is on screen he has a field day. (The biggest laugh comes when his assistant tells Buck that he has fetched distilled water for him and Buck, in Malkovich's trademarked clipped sarcasm, orders, "I don't want distilled water. Get me spring water. I am not an iron.").
The Great Buck Howard is a film of might've-beens buttressed by performers having a good time. McGinly could have hatched a great little satire from all of this. Instead, he gets all sticky and cloying. The result, as Lionel Barrymore so aptly put it in It's a Wonderful Life, becomes "sentimental hogwash."
Think of a star rating between 2 and 3.