So how do you take your Malkovich? Blacker is better, comedy-wise, but it’s OK to want a little cream and sugar sometimes, and there are worse ways to perk up than with The Great Buck Howard.
This is assuming we can agree that all John Malkovich vehicles are inherently worth watching. At the very least, whether he’s pitying Keanu Reeves in Dangerous Liaisons, foiling Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, punching Brad Pitt in the face in Burn After Reading, or now, opposite the innocuous offspring of Tom Hanks, simply making up for a lack of personality, the mixture of Malkovich with lesser actors practically qualifies as its own spectator sport. Besides, what other performer could inspire and enable a tosser like Being John Malkovich without then automatically subjugating it to his own self-satisfaction?
To be clear: Although it too probes the charlatan-entertainer-artiste continuum, The Great Buck Howard is no Being John Malkovich. But in the final analysis, all that really matters about writer-director Sean McGinly’s highly conventional, gently satirical study of old-fashioned showmanship is that its casting is equally correct.
Malkovich plays the titular Amazing Kreskin-esque figure, a man with a pumping, practically hostile handshake whose insistence that people refer to him as a mentalist rather than a magician doesn’t dissuade them from splitting hairs instead over whether he’s a has-been or just a hack. His repertoire includes hypnotism, rudimentary acts of apparent telepathy, and a truly singular take on “What the World Needs Now is Love,” performed in recitative while hunched over a battered piano, and ruefully dedicated to his special friend George Takei, “from the Star Trek.”
But wait. There’s more. Buck also has, of course, a signature bit. At the climax of each show, he hands a wad of cash–his fee for the evening, he explains–over to the audience, with instructions to hide it while he disappears briefly backstage. Then he reemerges, calls for complete silence, and mysteriously, triumphantly figures out where the wad’s been stashed. Finding the money, whether through trickery or enchantment: It’s a story about showbiz, all right.
Buck has 61 appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show to his credit, and none on Leno’s. It’s a sore spot. But he is a trouper, keeping the dream alive for himself and a shrinking contingent of fans (mostly blue-haired bitties), constantly touring heartland backwaters and announcing “I love this town!” upon his arrival, even if the town in question is Bakersfield.
Not that he doesn’t mean it. For that matter, he doesn’t lack self-knowledge, or even wisdom. As Buck quite rightly explains early on to Troy Gabel (Hanks), the law-school dropout and aspiring writer who becomes his new assistant, “No matter what you decide to do in the future, you’ll need life experience. I can give you that.”
And so he does. Generally, Troy’s job consists of playing straight man and buttress to his eccentric, sometimes monstrously selfish, tantrum-throwing boss. (The Great Buck Howard is nothing if not a cautionary tale of employer-employee codependency.) Troy is the movie’s narrator, and technically its protagonist, but of course his is not the name in the title.
Having played Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Lee in Sam Shepard’s True West, among those many other better-remembered roles, Malkovich has a fine intuition about the abusive endearment sometimes inflicted upon us by our fraternal elders; the rapport he creates with Hanks–sometimes apparently without the younger actor even being aware of it–is what gives this story its soul. Well, that, and a charming supporting turn from Emily Blunt as an attractive young publicity coordinator who wonders why on Earth Troy would want to work for Buck Howard in the first place. Hanks’ famous father, who happens to be one of the film’s producers, makes a brief and helpful appearance too, as Troy’s disapproving dad.
Less helpful, although not for any fault of performance, is Troy’s narration. It’s as unnecessary and occasionally as intrusive as the tactless music cues too often stuffed into McGinly’s overly glossy production. We get it, already–and how could we not? It’s Malkovich.