Troy (Colin Hanks) has just dropped out of law school against the wishes of his father (Tom Hanks, who mops the floor with his son for a couple of scenery-chewing scenes). You see, Troy really wants to be a writer, so he gets a job in show business working as road manager for the "Great" Buck Howard (John Malkovich), a once-famous mentalist. If you're not sure what a mentalist is, this movie won't really clarify things, but I think a mentalist is something of a cross between a magician and a motivational speaker. Instead of "tricks," Howard's act consists of "effects": sleight of hand, hypnotism, mind reading, even a little song on the piano. Of course, Buck's best days—he used to appear regularly on Johnny Carson—are long since past, and he spends his days playing half-capacity crowds in small regional theaters, seething with resentment at his faded glory.
The Great Buck Howard is actually about Troy's coming of age, and Troy's story is based on writer/director Sean McGinly's experience working for the Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist-slash-psychic who was famous enough in the '70s to have his own board game. Malkovich is reasonably good as the egocentric has-been, but Hanks the Younger is mopey and bland, and the script is marred by his completely unnecessary narration. The movie is only intermittently entertaining during its string of celebrity cameos, including Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, Tom Arnold, a weirdly moving Steve Zahn as a limo driver, and a flat-out bizarre appearance by George Takei, who wanders onto the set of a talk show to sing "What the World Needs Now Is Love." The movie tries to cover itself with a fine layer of showbiz glitz, but it soon turns into sentimental shmaltz, and Buck Howard's two-bit sleight-of-hand charm wears out pretty quickly.