Dir: Sean McGinly. US. 2008. 87 mins
The Great Buck Howard is a well-made character piece which is so slight, good-natured and ever so slightly bland that it is likely to land in a commercial no man's land somewhere between the mainstream and the arthouse. Produced by Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks, who also stars in a supporting role, the film bears all the hallmarks of their company Playtone. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, That Thing You Do!, Starter For Ten and to some extent Charlie Wilson's War, it is smart and pleasant, but lacks the dark edges and snappy dialogue which would have brought the material to life.

As a story of a young man working as the assistant to a temperamental magician, it bears similarities to 2006 smash The Devil Wears Prada but McGinly's script has smaller ambitions and less comedic verve.

The polish of the film's production combined with the strong cast and the involvement of Hanks (and sales company Summit) could ensure theatrical sales, but the film will always be more at home on the small screen.

John Malkovich plays Buck Howard, a mentalist who boasts that he has appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show a total of 61 times.

Although his star has long since faded and he now appears in community centres and shabby half-filled theatres, he still puts on a good show, working some impressive tricks of hypnotism and mind-reading on the audience.

Colin Hanks plays Troy Gable, a law school dropout looking for a job, who answers an ad in a newspaper and gets the post of Buck Howard's road manager and personal assistant.

The two work well together and when Buck decides to try a bold new trick, his publicist assigns spunky PR Valerie (Blunt) to drum up media interest.

Indeed, when he manages to hypnotize a whole room of people at once, he once more wins the limelight and even books an appearance on Carson's successor Jay Leno.

Troy, who meanwhile has been enjoying an affair with Valerie, is confronted by his father (Tom Hanks) who never knew he had dropped out of law school and has to leave Buck's employ, just as he is about to make start his return engagement in Vegas.

But inspired by Buck and helped by Valerie, Troy finds a new career pursuing his own dream of screenwriting.

Malkovich is a pleasure to watch as the eccentric Howard, and he clearly enjoys playing the mentalist with all his quirks - his vigorous handshake, his hackneyed catchphrase 'I love this town' - and his talent to engage an audience.

He also has a convincing tendency to offstage rage which gives the character a threatening quality a la Miranda Priestly, although Troy quickly becomes immune to the tantrums.

Colin Hanks is an appealing actor although he pales next to larger-than-life presences like Malkovich, Blunt and his father Tom Hanks, suggesting that his days as the winsome leading young hero are numbered.

A rich supporting cast including Debra Monk, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne and Ricky Jay is given little chance to shine in the 87-minute running time.

Production companies
Bristol Bay Productions

International sales
Summit International

Executive producers
Steven Shareshian
Marvin Acuna

Tom Hanks
Gary Goetzman

Sean McGinly

Tak Fujimoto

Production designer
Gary Frutkoff

Morgan Kerstein

Blake Neely

Main cast
John Malkovich
Colin Hanks
Emily Blunt
Ricky Jay
Debra Monk
Griffin Dunne
Adam Scott
Steve Zahn