Colin Hanks, from left, John Malkovich and Ricky Jay star in "The Great Buck Howard." (Magnolia Pictures)
The only person who thinks Buck Howard is great is Buck Howard. And sometimes it's hard to tell if even he believes it.
Buck (John Malkovich) is a mentalist, the sort of mystifying performer who can tell an audience member what number they've written down on a piece of paper. Back in his heyday, he appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" more than 61 times.
But that heyday is long gone and now he's playing quarter-full arenas in Bakersfield, Calif., and Akron, Ohio, telling his stale jokes and singing poorly, but still wowing folks with his tricks.
In "The Great Buck Howard," an aimless law school dropout named Troy (Colin Hanks) signs on to be Buck's personal assistant just to find out what the real world is like. And so the film follows Troy as he follows Buck from one half-baked gig to another, watching as Buck clings to his far-fetched dream of returning to the big time.
Writer-director Sean McGinley doesn't paint Buck as a complete portrait in pity, though. There's an undeniable charge to his tricks and a hambone enthusiasm that balances Buck's attempts at ego-inflation. He's a bit delusional and demanding, sure, but he's also a kick.
The delusional side takes over when Buck decides to perform a publicity stunt that will put him back on top and a bored publicist (Emily Blunt) meets up with Troy in Cincinnati for the not-so-grand event.
"The Great Buck Howard" is about a young man beginning and an older man ending, and also about the essential spirit of performing. Malkovich keeps Buck an enigma -- part fool, part unheralded genius -- and if the film moves in expected ways it also hits some subtle grace notes.
No, "Buck Howard" isn't great. But he is entertaining.