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The Great Buck Howard: The entertainer
A magician ages badly
The Great Buck Howard's strange and beguiling Malkovich.
The Great Buck Howard's strange and beguiling Malkovich.

I'm not quite old enough to remember firsthand the Tonight Show performances by the Amazing Kreskin, a.k.a. George Joseph Kresge Jr., the magician who appeared on the old Johnny Carson broadcast scores of times in the 1970s. But the poignant, funny, not wholly satisfying film The Great Buck Howard is based on Kreskin's life, so after I watched it I turned to YouTube to gather impressions from Kreskin clips.

Writer and director Sean McGinly knows his man. Like the real Kreskin, John Malkovich's Buck Howard is prickly about being called a magician; he prefers "mentalist." Buck has Kreskin's low-key approach to stage magic, and likewise Buck also is given to gratuitous name-dropping. The trouble with the names Buck drops is that they are, like the aging magician himself, badly dated. When he slips the Captain & Tenille into conversation, he means to be impressive. Instead he is pathetic.

There's a lot of pathos to Buck, in fact. It's one of many notes Malkovich strikes successfully in this character, who's a narcissist, a bullying control freak and a man out of time who thinks the Internet is a newspaper. And, not least, he is a strange and beguiling entertainer, which we know not only because the movie tells us he is, but also because Malkovich is so gleeful and forceful in the scenes of stage magic, which he performs on a circuit of crumbling old theaters.

True, some of Buck's shtick is feeble, like the spoken rendition of "What the World Needs Now Is Love" that's featured in every show. But at least that number, like the rest of the act, seems heartfelt. And when Buck is reading minds or hypnotizing volunteers the effect is pleasing, thanks partly to his homespun lack of flamboyance. "Isn't that wild?" he asks again and again of his tricks, as if he were as surprised as the audience. This is a fascinating performance by Malkovich, another of the many mesmerizing freaks he has portrayed over the years.

McGinly actually once worked as the Amazing Kreskin's personal assistant, and standing in for McGinly here is Buck's wide-eyed tour manager Troy, who is played by Colin Hanks. That's Hanks as in Colin's father, Tom Hanks, who has a producer credit and appears briefly as Troy's overbearing dad. As the film begins, Troy has dropped out of law school and is looking for work. A classified ad leads to a meeting with Buck, who appears to go through assistants as ruthlessly as Meryl Streep did in The Devil Wears Prada.

Soon Troy is being trained by his embittered predecessor, and then comes the film's best sequence, a montage of Buck's tour, which sees him performing to half-empty houses as Troy looks on. But the film falters when it zooms in on a couple of small-town yokels (Debra Monk, Steve Zahn) who are promoting one of his shows. These could have been interesting characters (people in small towns actually do have real personalities), but they're played as self-absorbed dimwits. Meanwhile, the film's last act is set into motion by a frustrating story cheat related to a big media event Buck has planned with his reluctant publicist (Emily Blunt).

My qualms aside, the film has worthy insights into the nature of celebrity as it is experienced in the backwaters that are Buck's tour stops. No matter where he is - Akron, Wausau - he tells his spectators, "I love this town!" They believe what he says. So, you'll swear, does he.

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