Johnny Carson put the “great” in mentalist Buck Howard’s name, but damned if he still isn’t insisting on the prefix 30-years-later. Buck (John Malkovich) is a damaged megalomaniac in the grande dame tradition of Bette Davis in All About Eve decades past his career peak. Now, he stays busy taking two-bit gigs in Bakersfield, California and Akron, Ohio where his audience is small, but devoted to this funny, fussy mindreader who guest-starred on The Tonight Show 61 times.
Writer-director Sean McGinly based his character on ’70s sensation The Amazing Kreskin, and he and Malkovich borrow wholesale Kreskin’s delighted grin, violent handshake, and infamous show stopper where, to get paid, the psychic must find his fee hidden somewhere in the crowd. McGinly’s film is based less on a plot than Malkovich’s endearing and enraging performance; supposed protagonist Troy (Colin Hanks)—playing a law school drop out who signs on as Buck’s road manager—and his long-winded narration continually feel like an intrusion. Hanks has inherited some of his father’s unassuming appeal, but even Oedipus couldn’t compete with a career based on nonchalance. (And in case we need a fresh comparison, Daddy Hanks—also a producer—does his son the favor/disservice of swinging through as his dad.) Emily Blunt, the indie darling giving Zooey Deschanel career anxiety, plays a publicist trying to avoid Buck’s wrath even as she makes it clear she feels she’s slumming. Before Blunt appears, we’ve warmed to Buck’s battered appeal; suddenly, we and Hanks see the desperate has-been he is though her cynical china blue eyes, and the rest of the film is us trying to reconcile both truths.
To their credit, Malkovich and McGinly never make sentimentality easy—when Buck’s career starts picking up after a stunt where he hypnotizes a roomful of Midwesterners, the first thing he does is get a facelift. What’s at stake in this bittersweet comedy is the need and vulnerability of performance. Those closest to Buck are those most certain it’s time to hang up his tux. But would that be a mercy kill for his career or a death blow to his self esteem? In a throwaway moment that aches, Buck organizes a charity fundraiser meant to star George Takei, and after Sulu cancels, he pads the act with real life forgotten legends who crowd around him in gratitude for remembering their names. In that scene, McGinly shows promise as a young filmmaker with empathy—he’s made a great film, if not a perfect film, and I wager he only gets better.