This story about a retro performer itself has a very retro feeling, as though it is a recently rediscovered artifact. The likable Colin Hanks plays Troy Gabel, who drops out of law school with some vague thought that he would like to write. To support himself, he applies for a job as assistant to Buck Howard (John Malkovich), known professionally as The Great Buck Howard. He is also sometimes known as a magician, which he is not. He is a mentalist, someone who astounds the audience with feats of mind-reading and hypnotism. He was once popular and successful. He guested over 60 times on “The Tonight Show,” back when it was the real “Tonight Show,” the one with Johnny. But somehow, he lost his place on the A List and now performs in small, half-filled venues.
While he can be bitter about his lack of recognition and demanding of Troy, when he is on stage he seems perfectly happy and at home, always apparently genuine with his signature greeting, “I love this town!” And Troy, well aware of the cheesiness of an act that seems more suited to the days of Ed Sullivan than the era of YouTube, can’t help admiring Buck’s showmanship and resilience. A young pr executive (Emily Blunt) arrives in Cincinnati to coordinate the press for Buck’s dramatic new effect. And both Buck and Troy learn something about what really matters to them.
Hanks is a likeable onscreen presence with an easy affability, and he does as much as he can with a character that is written with only one dimension — if that. His best scenes are with his real-life father, Tom Hanks, playing his on-screen father, who disapproves of his decision to leave law school. Malkovich has a lot of fun with his role as Buck, enthusiastically pumping the hands of everyone he meets and showing the character’s mingled sense of entitlement and insecurity, acute awareness of how he comes across to an audience and lack of awareness of how he comes across one-to-one. Its old-fashioned structure and unpretentiousness give it some extra appeal. And even though it is all pretend, it is fun to see Buck’s act.