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The Great Buck Howard (PG-13) **½

In this film publicity image released by Magnolia Pictures, John Malkovich is shown in a scene from, "The Great Buck Howard." Photo: AP/Magnolia Pictures.
In this film publicity image released by Magnolia Pictures, John Malkovich is shown in a scene from, "The Great Buck Howard." Photo: AP/Magnolia Pictures.

By Robert W. Butler, McClatchy Newspapers

Slight but satisfying, The Great Buck Howard examines an over-the-hill performer with an objective eye that is borderline brutal. Yet this comedy softens the blow with laughs, heart and a lingering sense of mystery.

Stage mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich) reads minds. Apparently, though, he cannot look into the public’s collective unconscious for an answer as to what happened to his once-flourishing career.

The Great Buck Howard — that’s how he introduces himself — was a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show 61 times, a fact he works into every conversation while delivering a whiplash-inducing handshake (like he’s cranking over an old Model T).

But Buck is an anachronism. In the mass-market era of Penn & Teller and David Blaine, Buck plies his same old cornball act in half-empty performing arts centers in Podunk cities, greeting every audience with an enthusiastic ”I love this town!” and signing off with a tinny rendition of What the World Needs Now.

We get to know Buck through the eyes of our narrator Troy (Colin Hanks), who dropped out of law school with the vague idea of becoming a writer. Now he’s the personal assistant to the Great Buck Howard, a gig that entails taking the temperamental Buck’s abuse while catering to his every whim.

It would be a terrible job except that Buck is a terrific mentalist who caps off every show by leaving the stage and having members of the audience hide his pay somewhere in the auditorium. He always finds the money, even if it’s been tucked into the brassiere of some lady in the last row. What’s the secret? Troy doesn’t know, and Buck isn’t telling.

Written and directed by Sean McGinly and produced by Colin’s dad, Tom Hanks (who has a brief role as Troy’s disapproving father), Buck Howard is a low-key, character-driven diversion. Wearing a heavy hairpiece and aging tuxedo, Malkovich is simultaneously sad and amusing. Young Hanks is fine as the movie’s straight man, and the supporting cast is packed with nifty turns by such familiar faces as Steve Zahn, George Takei, Griffin Dunne, Tom Arnold, Ricky Jay and Debra Monk.

But special mention must be made of English actress Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), stealing her every scene as a cynical publicist who comes to help Buck sell his big new stunt (he’s going to put 900 people to sleep simultaneously — sort of a metaphor for his career) and ends up bedding the gratified Troy. Think Rosalind Russell, only with a more obvious sex drive.

Cast: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt.

Director/screenwriter: Sean McGinly.

Producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 87 minutes. Some language, including suggestive remarks and a drug reference. In Miami-Dade: Intracoastal; in Palm Beach: Mizner Park.

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