Not fade away 

Malkovich plays Buck Howard bittersweet

Edith Wilma, sister of Edna, for whom the Wilma Theater was named, stayed in show business after her sister settled into married life in Missoula. In 1919, she married a ventriloquist named Fred Ketch whose signature act was to sing and harmonize in two and later three voices simultaneously. Can you imagine such a thing? What is there this side of Tuvan throatsingers, to say nothing of the desperate chumps on "American Idol," to compare with such an extraordinary skill? It would be marvelous if a recording of Ketch survived, but none probably does and maybe that is as it should be. Unlike Edith Wilma, who died several decades before him, Fred Ketch lived long enough to see vaudeville well and truly dead. It's fitting that such an enchanting—it could only have been enchanting—sound from a bygone era in entertainment exists now only in a few winking-out memories.

I relate this Wilma anecdote for melancholy's sake but also as an introduction to the "mentalist" played by John Malkovich in The Great Buck Howard, a character loosely based on Johnny-Carson regular the Amazing Kreskin. Unlike many of his entertainment contemporaries—those fabulous celebrity oddities, like Kreskin, whose entire careers seem to have revolved around late-night talk shows of the '60s and '70s—Malkovich's Buck Howard refuses to go quietly. He has become a laughingstock, a sad relic pushing the same corny schtick to half-full audiences of nostalgic seniors, an endearingly touchy specimen of onetime semi-celebrity left to ferment in 25 years of denial and delusion.

He is out of touch with the times. "I've never even heard of their paper," he protests when informed that an Internet reporter will be arriving to interview him. Also touchingly vain: Though his audience has dwindled to nothing, the prima donna in him won't cede an inch of its former territory, demanding star treatment and fuming when promoters pick him up at the airport in—gasp—a mini-van.

Clearly, this Buck Howard is comedic fruit ripe for the picking. Once the movie reassures you it won't be exploiting its main character for cruel laughs and the warm half-comforts of pop-culture irony, it becomes abundantly clear that The Great Buck Howard will stand or fall on Malkovich's performance. There isn't much to distract: certainly not the flimsy love story between blander-than-bland Colin Hanks (real-life dad Tom plays his dad in the movie, too) and a gorgeous, available, etc. "press attaché" played by Emily Blunt. (The resultant fumbling is premature in any sense of the word, and in any sense of fumbling.) We never sense real interest; it is simply thrust upon us. Watching Blunt try to seduce this trembling field mouse is barely more romantic than watching the kids in The Ice Storm tug at their Tuffskins. Blunt hasn't got much to work with, here. No one does. No one except, of course, John Malkovich.

I have never been able to stand John Malkovich. Sitting there 15 minutes into the The Great Buck Howard, the thought of being hostage to his relentless scenery-chewing for another hour and a half was almost more than I could stand. If someone could please refer me to the performance that established this supposedly "intense" actor's mystifying reputation for "intensity," I would be grateful.

The main reason I dislike John Malkovich is that he never lets you forget he's John Malkovich. Ooh look, I'm John Malkovich talking with a (horrible) Russian accent. Ooh, look, there's a movie about being John Malkovich and I'm in it. As a touchy fading celebrity, he's actually pretty funny, though typically he doesn't immerse himself in the role so much as brand himself on it. Every part he takes on ultimately ends up being John Malkovich.

If there's any distraction from Malkovich's hamming, it's the rogue's gallery of real-life minor celebrities that keeps popping up in The Great Buck Howard, luring you into a mildly diverting game of Spot The Washup. There's Gary Coleman, surprise surprise. And Donny Most—Ralph from "Happy Days," now going by just "Don." Best of all, there's Michael Winslow, famous for 15 minutes spread out over several Police Academy movies as the guy who makes all the cool sound effects. Just as in Police Academy, here too he has no character to speak of beyond just the guy who makes cool sound effects. If only they could have brought Charo on for a cameo!

So the writing is weak and the acting nonexistent in various ways, but The Great Buck Howard is still hard to dismiss entirely. It's very generous with its characters, even the Kentucky hick played by Steve Zahn (speaking of non-acting, I would sure like to see Zahn stop settling for playing an affable dumbbell or burned-out stoner), and surprisingly sensitive to the bittersweet. We never really feel sorry for Buck Howard (the character remains too brittle and the actor incapable of inhabiting the role), but we at least feel for his type: the has-been in denial, the corny entertainment anachronism who just can't walk away from the spotlight. And we stay interested in what he'll do next. Where Malkovich is concerned, that's a first for me, anyway. The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:' a first",,"")>

The Great Buck Howard continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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