April 17, 2009

Malkovich (Movie) Magic

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Has there been a screen icon in the past 20 years who can convey a mix of sophistication, eccentricity and penetrating intelligence quite like John Malkovich? During his career, he’s played evertyhing from psychos (In the Line of Fire, Con Air) to heroes (The Man in the Iron Mask) to god-kings (Eragon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) to odds and ends (Of Mice and Men, Burn After Reading, Disgrace). In fact, he’s the only actor to come to mind who is so delightfully willing to parody himself that he participated in a genre-bending comedy about space-time where people traveled down an office corridor through his body into a ditch by the Jersey Turnpike (Being John Malkovich). Yet, somehow, he’s always playing himself.
In The Great Buck Howard, Malkovich finally gets the opportunity to play the kind of character that actors wait a lifetime to play: the tragic but lovable hero. Buck (Malkovich) is a mentalist (not a magician). He combines the theatrics of magic shows with the fascination of hypnotism and sleight-of-hand audience-guessing games. He is an analog form of entertainment in an increasingly downloaded world, and his stars have long since faded. It was in a past lifetime, back when Johnny Carson was alive and well and running The Tonight Show, that The Great Buck Howard was a regular guest of interest.
Buck Howard is not Forrest Gump, or Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram. Buck Howard is a supremely vain asshole: cheerfully out of touch with the times, decided in his mannerisms, prone to mood swings and artistic temperament. He’s hard to like, harder to work for, almost impossible to take seriously. Except when he performs his final trick, when he wagers the audience his fee for the evening’s performance, inviting them to hide the money while he waits backstage. He returns and discovers the wad of cash among the audience members with his eyes shut tight. How does he do it?
Troy Gable (Colin Hanks from Orange County and The House Bunny) does not know the secret to the trick. He doesn’t have time to know. He hated law school and dropped out surreptitiously to take a stab at the entertainment industry in L.A. There, he eventually becomes Buck Howard’s road manager, providing services to the aged mentalist while searching for his own answers to young adulthood’s questions. Buck’s story is told through his eyes, and it is a madcap ride.
When the rollercoaster slows down, we see Buck Howard the way Troy does: ornery, picky, deluded and corny as hell. But there is a deep, honest desire to entertain people within the man, and Troy goes against his father’s wishes and sticks by Buck. The mentalist is so blissfully ignorant of his mannerisms (“I love this town!” becomes this movie’s unofficial slogan) or how his words can be misconceived (“toss my salad” is an irony-free literal expression to him) or how pop-culture illiterate he is (“To all you Star Trek fans out there, ‘May the Force be in you.’”) that Troy, and the viewers, can’t help but love him.
Buck’s big break is supposed to be in Cincinnati, a town full of yokels played by comedic virtuosos like Steve Zahn. He is planning a new trick involving putting hundreds of people to sleep at once. In the meantime, Troy runs into Valerie (Emily Blunt). She’s a pretty journalistic type, all snappy one-liners and full of media starlet’s disillusionment. She and Troy are instantly attracted to one another, but she has a boyfriend. No worries. This film has no time for clichéd romances. It takes interesting, fully realized characters and accelerates them towards each other, hoping that loose neutrons collide.
By a believable twist of circumstance, Buck becomes famous again, and the movie chronicles Troy’s view of the man as his arc of fame takes its familiar 15 minute-long shuttle ride through the stratosphere. The story is not new. It is about the rise, fall, resurrection and subsequent fallout of an entertainer, a fossilized case study of nuance and personhood, of places in the world that seek desperately to be inhabited by eccentric people.
At his peak, Buck “meets” Jon Stewart, Conan O’ Brien, Regis and Kelly, etc., and through these guest appearances, as well as cameos by David Blaine and George Takei, the movie feels surreally grafted into our reality — Buck seems even more fantastical and mythic in his ordinary ordeal of being a square peg in the round whole of the world. We relate through Troy, and as we hear Buck Howard speak, we fall in love with his personality, his person. And Malkovich captivates. He makes this seemingly unreal, ethereal oddball into someone we all know. Here is a great movie: part coming-of-age tale, part character study, part screwball comedy, part tragic saga, part testament to an often-overlooked master thespian. It’s not to be missed.