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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Great John Malkovich

Being Buck Howard

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In recent years John Malkovich has starred in a run of quirky little indie movies, most designed at least in part around the quirks of his haughty, disdainful persona. Being Malkovich has been its own reward, but also perhaps a trap for the talented actor. In The Great Buck Howard, Malkovich expands beyond his norm. To be sure, the familiar studied air of superiority, the supercilious glare, remain. But in The Great Buck Howard Malkovich finds sympathy in a comical character who has become a loser, and not an especially beautiful one.

The story is narrated by Troy (Colin Hanks), a 20-something yet to find himself. Pressured by dad (played by his real father, Tom Hanks, in cameo performances) to attend law school, Troy drops out and takes a job in the spirit of adventure as road manager to the entertainer who calls himself "The Great Buck Howard"-not the OK or Pretty Good Buck Howard, as the showman never tires of reminding listeners. Johnny Carson himself bestowed the title of Great upon him and who can argue with Johnny?

Howard bristles when anyone terms him a magician, insisting on being called a "mentalist." And indeed, on the circuit of shabby halls he has been reduced to playing, in places where the limelight wears a dingy hue, he executes some almost uncanny feats that defy easy explanation. Howard is a showman nonetheless, glad-hand always in motion, assuring every audience, even in Wausau, Wis., "I love this town."

Troyis prepared to bracket his boss between ironic quotation marks as a toupee-topped has-been, a gauche relic from the age when Frank, Dino and Sammy prowled the Vegas casinos where the great mentalist once performed. Howard claims to know everyone who once was anyone, including the Captain and Tennille and "Star Trek's" Sulu, "a dear friend," he always adds. Throwing tantrums when not accorded proper deference, Howard is not the world's easiest employer. He is in deep denial over his precarious status in the outback of the entertainment industry and yet, like Norma Desmond in SunsetBoulevard, is plotting a grand comeback. In a time when even William Shatner has reinvented himself, Buck Howard may yet have his second act.

Endearing and amusing, with spot-on performances by Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and others in secondary roles, The Great Buck Howard is a loving sendup of the delusions and creaky machinery sustaining the careers of many once prominent performers cruising toward oblivion on autopilot. Malkovich taps a well of pathos as the mentalist whose will to believe he is still a star keeps his light shining.