The Great Buck Howard: John Malkovich Is Great; the Movie Is Gentle

A pleasant little ditty from SIFF last year, this affectionate view of C-list showbiz comes from the cosseted inside of the trade. Tom Hanks nicely underplays his cameo as the concerned father of a law-school dropout (Colin Hanks) who's become the personal assistant to a has-been magician/entertainer on the dinner-theater circuit. Has John Malkovich (as the extravagantly tooth-whitened, bewigged Buck) or the younger Hanks ever known flop sweat or genuine career desperation? This isn't an exposé of Hollywood angst. It's about a nice young man from a good family seeking direction in his comfortable life—which is to say, not much more interesting than the law school he escaped. For no apparent reason, our hero wants to be a writer, yielding voiceover nuggets like "When you do the thing you love, somehow, magically, you find the money." Which makes sense, I suppose, coming from the son of a movie star. Or from Buck Howard's writer-director, Sean McGinly, who's essentially telling us his life story. Better employed in Sunshine Cleaning, Emily Blunt has a few nice moments as a PR gal, but the movie belongs to Malkovich. He's like some berserk yet oblivious creation of Martin Short's on the old SCTV, an unkillable Tonight Show relic with no inner life or sexuality (though all assume he's gay, given his friendship with George Takei). His questionable talent, or even kitsch value, isn't the issue. Buck possesses what Buck Howard lacks: the single-minded, lesson-free compulsion to entertain.

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