The Great Buck Howard is much better than you'd expect of a film produced by Tom Hanks and starring Colin Hanks, who is most famous for being Tom Hanks's son. It's not just a mediocre bit of nepotism; the movie sparkles with some really fine performances. Best of all is John Malkovich as the titular Howard, a mentalist (never a magician: "I was a magician when I was 3 years old, but I evolved out of that") whose glory days—over 60 performances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show—are long past. Howard's smile is a huge fake showbiz grin that evokes the dumbest kind of attention seeking (it kind of resembles Jim Carrey's doglike, love-me smile). Howard has a huge ego, of course, but Malkovich finds the vulnerability there, too: You feel sorry for the guy, even as you laugh at him.
It's freaky how much the younger Hanks, with his giant eyebrows and intrinsic wholesomeness, has come to resemble Jimmy Stewart, but sadly he doesn't have any of Stewart's charisma. As Howard's young assistant and road manager, Hanks flounders a bit; he's doing solid, quiet ensemble-level work in a leading role. He fares a bit better in his scenes with Emily Blunt—their romance is unforced, gentle, and decent—but her character, a publicity secretary who grates on Howard's nerves, doesn't give her much to work with.
TGBH tries very hard to charm, and it often succeeds, but director Sean McGinly doesn't give the film the backbone it needs. The soundtrack is often quite ingenious (especially a notably weird appearance by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), but other times it's as subtle as a heart attack. The plot floats along, soufflé-light, when it should be more substantial, and it's aw-shucks when it should be smart. It's a shame to see Malkovich's performance—a character study that can only be described as "great"—wasted on such a weightless lark of a film.