Being John Malkovich, it turns out, has its pros and cons. While most agree that Malkovich is a talented actor, few in Hollywood have really tested his range, preferring to use him as either terrifying or downright weird. Abroad, directors like Raul Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira see him as the ideal haughty, intellectual leading man, but most American filmmakers regard him as an effeminate sociopath or disingenuous europhile, either to be punched in the face by Nicolas Cage or impersonated on Saturday Night Live. At best, however, this self-seriousness and ambiguous shiftiness have made him an ideal subject for Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s film, and in Burn After Reading the Coen Brothers rejoined with their own idea of what being John Malkovich means, in extremis: a pompous, blue-blood turned axe-wielding freak.
Further from the usual Malkovich M.O., though rather less successful, is the actor’s turn as the title character in Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard. A beloved entertainer and veteran “mentalist”—don’t call him a magician—Malkovich’s Buck sports beautiful, flowing hair, flashy ties, and an optical-white grin, and he elaborately shakes the hands (and entire body) of everyone he meets. No wonder he was on Carson 61 times and enumerates among his pals such luminaries as Ed McMahon, the Captain & Tenille, and most of all, George Takei—Star Trek‘s Mr. Sulu (“he’s a hero of mine”). Buck Howard is a legend, though he’s the kind of legend that plays 400 shows a year in mid-size American cities, where he provides wholesome diversion in the form of “mentalism” and casino-grade entertainment: hypnosis, guessing obvious things, and balefully intoning Bacharach and David’s “What the World Needs Now” in a monotone while fudging chords on a stand-up piano.
Click here to read the rest of Leo Goldsmith's review of The Great Buck Howard.