The Great Buck Howard is a movie that seems constantly on the verge of turning into something. Its title character is a stage magician, but you sit through the whole thing waiting for magic that never comes.
Dull Colin Hanks plays dull Troy Gabel, a law-school dropout searching for purpose in his life. He conveniently comes across an ad seeking a road manager for over-the-hill mentalist Buck Howard (Malkovich), who these days is playing for half-empty auditoriums in places like Bakersfield, California, and Akron, Ohio.
Does Troy become reinvigorated by working for Buck and find direction for his future? Well, not really; he likes it, sure, but his sorely underdeveloped dream of being a writer is already in place by the time he meets Buck, and it’s fairly smooth sailing from there. Do Buck and Troy have a contentious relationship that teaches each something about himself? No, not that either; there are a few fights, but mostly they seem like cordial and pleasant business associates. Does Troy at least find love? Sort of—he hooks up with a beautiful publicist (Blunt), but their relationship doesn’t really go anywhere, either for better or worse.
Never at any point is there any dramatic tension to the story; just when it seems like something serious or important might happen, writer-director McGinly just moves on to the next thing. Hanks is likable but bland as Troy, while Malkovich goes nuts with the exaggerated mannerisms but almost never sells the pathos of Buck’s never-say-die attitude. As a closing title card reveals, the film is meant as a tribute to the Amazing Kreskin, on whom Buck is modeled. It’s a great greeting card, then, but it’s not much of a movie.