The Great Buck Howard

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
The Great Buck Howard Movie Poster Image
Offbeat magic comedy isn't likely to get kids' attention.
  • PG
  • 2009
  • 87 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

A once-successful magician has delusions of grandeur that don't befit his humbler career. He's sometimes rude and pompous and condescending to fans. He also insults his employees and is blindingly self-important. Overall, the movie's message is to love what you do, though it doesn't always come across loud and clear.


Buck throws things around and sometimes has meltdowns. Some loud arguments.


A girl with a boyfriend hooks up with a co-worker; they kiss and presumably sleep together, but there's no graphic love scene.


Fairly mild: "nitwit," "stupid," "suck," "butt."


Lots of name-checking: Johnny Carson, George Takei, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer, Jay Leno. Some clips of Buck on TRL, The Daily Show, and Live With Regis and Kelly. An issue of Entertainment Weekly figures prominently.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A girl guzzles liquor from a hotel mini-bar. Some social drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that although this eccentric comedy is fairly tame when it comes to language and nudity, it's probably not on most kids' radar. Still, tweens and teens who are into magic might actually find it interesting, though the movie's life lesson -- love what you do -- doesn't always come across clearly. Expect a bit of drinking and kissing, as well as some loud arguments and rudeness and tantrums from the main character.

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What's the story?

After realizing that law school isn't for him after all, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) gets a job assisting past-his-prime "mentalist" Buck Howard (John Malkovich). Though he's appeared on The Tonight Show 61 times, Buck hasn't yet been able to hit the big time. But he's going to die trying -- despite the fact that his act, though interesting and certainly appreciated in Bakersfield and Akron, is positively cheesy (think Captain and Tenille meets David Copperfield). To finally make his mark, Buck -- with the help of a publicist (Emily Blunt) he can't quite make himself like -- unveils a new act that indirectly brings him the fame he so badly seeks. But Troy's not sure about Buck's new trajectory, especially since it might actually diminish the performer's powers.

Is it any good?

On paper, THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD ought to be a slam dunk. Quirky, interesting premise? Check. A well-written character? Check. John Malkovich? Check. But it stops short of greatness, settling instead for aimlessness. Blunt is a delight, but Hanks is merely amiable in his role -- he lacks a certain strength required when acting opposite a tour-de-force like Malkovich, whose turn as a smiley, glad-handy, loungey almost-ran is impressive. (The film really ought to be called The Great John Malkovich, though Buck's character is inspired by the Amazing Kreskin.) Buck could actually amuse kids in a retro kind of way: He's clearly of a different time that's pre-Twitter, pre-Internet, and pre-everything else that's revved up life so fast.

In the end, the movie's biggest problem may be this: Though we're meant to understand that Troy learns a life lesson from his time with Buck, it's not clear what that lesson really is. Is it to never mess with a good thing? To love what you do? To persist? Or all of the above? We get the card tricks and the sleight-of-hand, but there's no big finish.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about who the movie's target audience is. It's rated PG, but does that automatically mean that it's for kids?

  • Is there a good message to take away from the movie?

  • What, if anything, does Troy learn from Buck -- and vice versa?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramedies

Themes & Topics

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