Psychics our country needs you

The Great Buck Howard

Starring John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn

Directed by Sean McGinly

Rating: I’m thinking of a number between one and four that represents the number of stars I would rate this film. Let’s see if you can guess that number by the end of this review.

I have a premonition. It is that those of you born before 1980 may get a kick out of this film (and those of you who were watching David Letterman in the 1980s and 1990s might, as well). That’s because you may remember seeing a television show called “The Amazing World of Kreskin,” or seeing a guest on Letterman, featuring a performer calling himself The Amazing Kreskin.

Kreskin, whose real name is George Joseph Kresge, Jr., is one odd and memorable fellow. In his act, would make predictions and perform card tricks. He also performed a trick whereby his payment at a venue would be hidden by the audience after he was ushered offstage. He would then come back out and try to find it (which, according to Wikipedia, he succeeded in doing hundreds of times, sans nine).

No one ever learned how he did his tricks. Is he psychic? He prefers we not use that term, as that would lump him in with charlatans and frauds, thank you very much.

Instead, he refers to himself as a mentalist — whatever that means. He admits he does not possess any special powers, and yet he considers himself “amazing.”

I admit that I was amazed when I saw him. But, given my cynicism even at a young age, I also suspected that there was some trick to his tricks. I was always suspicious of and amused by the way he would frantically remove and replace his eyeglasses as he energetically flitted around the audience and on stage. Did he have some listening device in those frames or some reflective apparatus? Who knows (but Kreskin)?

The Great Buck Howard is based on Kreskin. (I did not have to read the filmmaker’s mind to discover that. I just waited until the end of the film, where it is announced.) And John Malkovich, who plays Buck Howard with relish, conjures Kreskin complete with his manic mannerisms and prickly, yet smarmy, personality.

Colin Hanks plays a young kid named Troy who decides that law school is not his calling and responds to an ad to be an assistant to a performer — that being Buck Howard. He is hired, and we get to see Buck through Troy’s eyes — which is to say, we never get to learn how Buck performs his magic.

Instead, we get to see Buck throwing tantrums because of some perceived slight or diminishment of his presumed grandeur, berating assistants who don’t roll out the red carpet, and being altogether flippant, unpredictable and mysterious. All part of the showman persona.

The film is quirky, gentle and pleasing. Buck Howard is a pill, but that’s because he is set in his ways and has a routine that seems to work. In spite of his abrasively supercilious persona, the film is pretty tame and nonthreatening. And it doesn’t take a soothsayer to predict many of its plot turns and developments (except one at the end) — especially involving Troy and a pretty, yet snappily savvy, publicity person hired to help Buck with a stunt that could potentially rebound his career.

The film also goes out of its way to suggest that Buck actually possesses some magical abilities — this in spite of his extreme lack of observational astuteness regarding the goings on with others in his orbit (including Troy) and how his personality can be off-putting (such as the repetitive awkwardness of his aggressively intense handshake — or maybe that’s part of his act, to throw people off-kilter). This is especially odd given that one could surmise that his talent is not based on some special psychic sense, but on simply being a keen observer.

It is possible that he always finds his fee hidden by the audience in the auditorium because the audience members give it away through eye movement, body language and other “tells” as he wanders around the room. Someone that attuned to gestures produced by internal mental states ought to be able to pick up on other signals, as well ¬— such as the fact that the press might be more interested in the happenings of Jerry Springer than a “has-been” mind reader.

Kreskin is still with us, still doing shows, still performing “amazing” feats. (He takes some credit for the discovery of the body of a missing university student in 2002 and has offered his services to help find Stacy Peterson, the missing wife of Illinois police sergeant Drew Peterson). He seems to be focused on helping law enforcement — which leads to the obvious question: Why hasn’t he been interested in the JonBenet Ramsey case?

Although helping find missing persons and solve criminal cases is indeed laudable, there are so many other quandaries that desperately need the application of his mental powers, in the political and public arenas, for example. (He did predict in 2002 that Rudy Giuliani would run for president — but he also predicted that he would win!)

For instance, maybe The Amazing Kreskin can help us with the following, seemingly imponderable queries:

• Which Republicans are going to run against Bill Ritter for governor in 2010? Against U.S. Sen. Mike Bennet?

• Will Jay Cutler still be quarterbacking for the Broncos this fall?

• Will the economic stimulus money actually help bring us out of the economic doldrums?

• Are President Barack Obama’s NCAA picks correct?

• Who will get some of that stimulus money?

• Will Doctor Ward Churchill get his CU job back?

• Will we ever see a “cap and trade” system to reduce greenhouse gasses?

• What happened to the bailout funds?

• How low will the stock market get, and how high will unemployment reach?

• What happened to the Bernard Madoff money?

• How long will the Denver Post survive?

• Will there ever come a time when there are no more film critics?

[Did you guess the number of stars? Don’t ask me for the answer. Maybe The Amazing Kreskin knows.]

Doug Young is The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall as an environmental policy adviser.