Movie Review: 'The Great Buck Howard'

John Malkovich, second from right, stars as a past-his-prime mentalist in the new film.
John Malkovich, second from right, stars as a past-his-prime mentalist in the new film. (Magnolia Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

John Malkovich is from the same planet as Christopher Walken. That place is Planet Weird. How did these men get into movies? (How did they get to Earth?)

They look odd. They perform oddly. They've been around for a long time, creeping us out, making us giggle, occasionally delivering a decent dramatic performance. In the second acts of their weird careers, Walken has taken the populist route, endearing himself to a new generation of fans with "Wedding Crashers" and his "Saturday Night Live" appearances; Malkovich has been more indie, playing filmmaker F.W. Murnau, artist Gustav Klimt, literary anti-hero 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. Or if Walken had played the part instead.

Buck Howard, a character inspired by the Amazing Kreskin, is a vaudevillian mentalist who was once a regular on Johnny Carson's show but now tours mid-size cities, hypnotizes people, tells jokes and sings Burt Bacharach. Buck is one of those quasi-celebrities who get through each day by constantly reliving their best moments from 30 years ago, even though the rest of the world has long since 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 backstage drama of the entertainment industry is fertile ground for both biting satire ("Boogie Nights," "All About Eve") and powerful biopics ("Raging Bull," "Man on the Moon"). "The Great Buck Howard" could've been both. It should've been both, given that Malkovich-as-Kreskin is appealing, at least conceptually. It would've been both if the movie 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 also produces and acts in the movie). A bigger problem is Hanks's character, Troy, a law-school dropout who wants to be a writer but instead finds himself traveling from Stockton, Calif., to Akron, Ohio, making sure the great Buck Howard's purple pants are pressed. The story is Troy's, not Buck's, and the movie 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. Hence the movie's feel-goodness, the bit about "staying true to oneself," and so on.

The movie gets one thing exactly right. Buck loathes Jay Leno (as everyone should). Buck believes Leno represents the degeneration of showmanship (which he does). This bias prompts the best line in the movie, delivered after Buck is bumped from "The Tonight Show":

"That man is Satan," he says with fanatical conviction, unleashing the full power of Malkovich for a brief second. As always, his inflection is smooth and slippery, as if 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 Great Buck Howard."

But for this sloppily written role in this sentimentally directed movie, Christopher Walken would have been a better choice. Walken can do fatherly and lovable without losing the weirdness. 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."

The Great Buck Howard (87 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG for some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference.

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