In the second act of his career, John Malkovich has gone indie, playing F.W. Murnau, Gustav Klimt, Tom Ripley and, in a masterful comic performance that revealed a supple awareness of his own weirdness, John Horatio Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich."
In "The Great Buck Howard," Malkovich has a role that coulda-woulda-shoulda been a sensation if he had had a different director and different co-stars.
Buck Howard, a character inspired by the Amazing Kreskin, is a vaudevillian mentalist who gets through each day by reliving his best moments from 30 years ago, even though the rest of the world has moved on. Colin Hanks plays Buck's assistant, who caters to his strange needs and helps maintain his boss's delusion that he is still a beloved personality.
The movie could have been both a biting satire and a powerful biopic if it had tried to be anything other than a sentimental love letter to Kreskin and to the tired adage of staying true to oneself.
A problem is the dull Hanks, who would not have gotten this role on his own merits (his father is Tom, who produces and acts in the film). A bigger problem is Hanks's character, Troy, a law school dropout. The story is Troy's, not Buck's, and "The Great Buck Howard" is all the less interesting because of it. Malkovich deserves a movie in which he can go for broke. Instead, he's merely a vessel through which Troy learns an important lesson on the way to establishing his own writing career.
As always, Malkovich's inflection is smooth and slippery, like his salivary glands are working overtime, and his presence is aristocratic and lethal, like that of a polite serial killer. Under the direction of, say, Alexander Payne or David O. Russell, Malkovich might have flourished in a deeper, darker, more madcap version of the film.
But Malkovich here is like a jack-in-the-box that never pops out, and the movie plays like an endless, aggravating loop of "Pop Goes the Weasel."
-- Dan Zak (March 20, 2009)
Contains language, including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference.