x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Great Buck Howard

The actor's mannerisms are out of place in this otherwise amusing film about a once-famous performer.

John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard.
John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard.

John Malkovich is a strange actor, in truth. A man who has, over the years, achieved a cult status among movie lovers, even to the level of starring in a film about his own psyche (Being John Malkovich), the general consensus is that he is an acting genius who can do no wrong. Certainly, even the most mediocre plot is usually improved by the enigmatic aura that his chilly manner and menacingly bored voice create.

Yet when called upon to play Buck Howard, a character who is vulnerable, cartoonish and needy, he falters somewhat, apparently unable to enunciate his lines in anything more expressive than his trademark nasal monotone. His rictus grimace as he attempts to substitute his naturalistic manner for the flamboyant stylings of a veteran magician and mentalist is almost painful to watch. It's a flaw that is surprising in an actor so universally lauded and his incongruity in the role acts as a constant reminder to the viewer that this is a film starring The Great John Malkovich, rather than just a film about The Great Buck Howard.

In fact, it feels rather as if this quirky movie, with its slight plot and mildly funny script, was misguidedly intended as something of a vehicle for Malkovich, which is a shame because the writer and director Sean McGinly has a sweet story to tell, inspired by his early show-business experiences and by the real-life mentalist and magician The Amazing Kreskin, for whom McGinley briefly worked as road manager.

This is ostensibly a rite-of-passage tale about Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) and his journey of self-discovery as he drops out of law school to pursue a writing career. The mild, pleasant Gable, wearing an expression of gentle bemusement through most of the film, takes the first job he finds, acting as road manager to Buck Howard, a mentalist (someone who uses persuasion, hypnotism, misdirection and so on to "read minds" and perform tricks) in the twilight of his career. Travelling from tiny half-filled theatre to tiny half-filled community centre, playing to septuagenarian audiences (who nevertheless adore him), Howard is convinced that his return to fame and The Tonight Show (on which, when it was hosted by Johnny Carson, he appeared 61 times) is imminent.

Gable is, of course, sceptical, but still finds there is something compelling about Howard's pin-sharp suits, perfectly coiffed hair and outdated but dapper manners on stage. "I LOVE this town!" Howard exclaims as he runs on to each stage, and "Isn't that WILD, ladies and gentleman?" as he pulls off a successful trick. And for all his showbiz routine and name-dropping (every show he sings a song dedicated to his once "good friend" George Takei, who played Sulu in Star Trek. "May the force be in you," says the confused mentalist), his tricks astound the audience and Gable alike. His final sleight of hand, every night, is to ask the audience to hide his fee, which he then magically finds, every time. The trick never fails and is the stuff of legend. (The Amazing Kreskin had a similar illusion.)

Naturally, however, beneath the polished and congenial stage persona is a terrified, angry, sad and lonely character, and it is here that Malkovich's acting strengths are properly utilised. His great subtlety is perfectly pitched in his tantrums over the PR girl Valerie (Emily Blunt) or when he describes Jay Leno as "the devil". He brilliantly implies the panic of a man losing his grip on his life, job and personality.

As Gable and Valerie enjoy a pleasant dalliance, losing interest in the increasingly cranky Howard, it becomes apparent just how alone this man is, having given his personal life up to regain his former success on television. As he is given a second shot at the limelight, the film starts to take on the issues of the pursuit of fame, bringing in cameos from the likes of Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and, of course, George Takei, to gently mock the ageing star, nicely revealing the cruelty of modern (or postmodern) fame.

There are, indeed, plenty of moments of great subtlety and amusement in this movie. It's a pleasant film to watch, certainly, with understated but effective performances from Hanks and Blunt (though the appearance of Hanks's real-life father, Tom, one of the film's producers, playing Gable's fictional father, smacks of gratuitous star pandering). Ultimately, though, a hip indie style, a soundtrack featuring Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the casting of the beloved Malkovich are simply not enough to lift this movie into anything more than an enjoyable diversion to while away an evening.