This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Is there anyone better than John Malkovich at barely containing his temper? He gravitates toward characters who do not suffer fools lightly, and that would include the Great Buck Howard, who once was Johnny Carson's favorite guest. Buck was dropped from Johnny's guest list and now tours the provinces, taking his magic act from small stages to smaller ones, but he still has his dignity.
"I love this town!" he shouts with outstretched arms in Akron, and Akron still loves him. He is famous for his "signature effect," in which his evening's fee is given to an audience member, and he uses his psychic powers to find it. He has never failed, and no one has ever discovered how he does it. Buck was named "The Great" by Carson and still maintains a facade of Greatness, even in front of Troy (Colin Hanks, Tom's son), his newly hired road manager. Malkovich invests him with self-importance and yet slyly suggests it's not all an act; you believe at some level Buck really does love that town, and also when he says, as he always does, "I love you people!"
"The Great Buck Howard" is told from Troy's point of view. His father (Tom Hanks) fervently wants him to enter law school, but he wants to test show biz, and this is his first contact with any degree of fame. He never penetrates the Great Buck Howard's facade (and never do we), but he sure does learn a lot about show biz, some of it intimately from Valerie (Emily Blunt), a new PR person hired for Buck's spectacular new illusion in Cincinnati. Troy learns to carry bags, open doors, deal with local reps and supply mineral water, not distilled ("I'm not an iron," Buck crisply tells Troy's eventual replacement).
We see Buck as Troy does, as an impenetrable mystery. Buck is far from forgotten (he guests on shows hosted by Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, Jon Stewart and Martha Stewart, all playing themselves). He can still fill a room, even if it's a smaller room. His manager, Gil (Ricky Jay, who always seems to know the inside odds), even gets him a Las Vegas booking. What happens there, and how it happens, is perceptive about show biz and even more perceptive about Buck and his "signature effect."