The So-So Buck Howard 

Colin Hanks can't quite capture Dad's draw

Back in the days before gross-out humor became synonymous with American comedy, there used to be this little thing called class. Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail) had it, as did Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping). Not that their films didn't occasionally dip into humor based on bodily functions—remember Meg Ryan's lunchtime orgasm?—but there was a wide-eyed sweetness, an impish joy to their work. That's an increasingly rare quality in today's filmmaking culture. The Great Buck Howard, a new film by writer/director Sean McGinly, recalls the flavor of such curl-up-on-the-couch favorites.

Like its title character, The Great Buck Howard is a throwback to a different era of entertainment, with cherry-picker camera work and an upbeat, ever-present score by composer Blake Neely. It falls in the vein of popular comedies such as When Harry Met Sally and the Playtone production (Tom Hanks' company) That Thing You Do! but can't match these character-driven predecessors in terms of entertainment. It's light, inoffensive and amusing, but little else. It has a distinct air of romantic comedy about it—a la Tom Hanks' Joe Versus the Volcano— but the romance is truncated and the comedy more of the chuckle variety.

Reluctant law student Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) is not happy. Parentally pressured into becoming an attorney, he decides to quit school and become road manager for the once celebrated but now marginalized mentalist—fancy talk for magician—Buck Howard (John Malkovich). A consummate showman, Howard is loud, fussy and devoted to his craft. With an out-of-fashion vaudeville schtick and a shoulder-wrenching handshake, Buck is simultaneously endearing and off-putting, a fading part of the history of showbiz. Convinced of his enduring celebrity, Buck hires publicist Valerie (Emily Blunt), who has her work cut out staging his career come-back. Tom Hanks, Colin's real-life father, plays Troy's disapproving patriarch and also produced the film through his company Playtone.

Malkovich is fully convincing as the optimistic but demanding has-been, his quirks and geniality out of place in an MTV-jaded industry, while Blunt simply nails her smaller, easier role, igniting each scene she's in. Although possessed of some of the family charm, the junior Hanks is not suited to leading man roles, his bemused performance overshadowed by those of Malkovich, Blunt and a plethora of celebrity cameos. He's a fine actor, but ever since his leading turn in 2002's Orange County, viewers are likely left with far stronger impressions of his talented co-stars. The trick of giving an A-list performance with B-list material was a skill his father mastered as evidenced in many of the elder Hanks' 1980s-era films. It may well be an inherited aptitude, but this film gives no indication that the younger Hanks has been so blessed.

With a simplistic after-school-special message of finding your purpose and discovering life's magic, the script feels a little paint-by-the-numbers. A largely unnecessary narration over-explains Troy's thoughts, while the intriguing screen cutaways and amusing pop-up checklists inexplicably disappear after the opening credits. McGinly's direction is solid, producing a well-made film that won't knock anyone's socks off but is fine matinee fodder when you need something light. The Great Buck Howard doesn't quite live up to its title, but if the other option is the juvenile swill so hot with the kids right now, go with the pretty good Buck Howard.

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