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Being John Malkovich
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and Orson Bean
Running Time: 112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for language and sexuality

What a strange movie this is!

John Cusack (Pushing Tin, Bullets over Broadway) is Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer committed more to his "art" of provocative street theater than to any sense of financial security, but who one day discovers a portal that leads inside the head of John Malkovich. Maxine, a co-worker Craig fancies, recognizes the financial possibilities and sets up a business with Schwartz charging people $200 for fifteen minutes inside the famously weird Hollywood actor. Meanwhile, Craig's animal-obsessed wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz in a commercially daring performance) has fallen in love with both  Maxine and Malkovich, though for very different reasons. And then there's our title character, who remains oblivious to all the rumbles in his noggin but whose life is nonetheless about to get very, very complicated.

If that sounds weird, you haven't even heard the half of it. Inspired by the surrealist tradition and taking more than a couple cues from Alice in Wonderland, Being John Malkovich is undoubtedly the most bizarre Hollywood movie of the recent past. High marks must go to Diaz (There's Something About Mary) whose look is so different from her glamour model image that it took me 20 minutes to recognize who she was. Her vulnerability in the film is compelling.

The other acting is also fairly good. Cusack has a nice comic touch, particularly in the beginning of the movie when he applies for a job on the 7 1/2 floor. The hilarity that ensues when Cusack's famously tall frame has to adjust to ceilings only four feet tall was good for at least 10 minutes of almost-continuous laughter in the screening I saw. But the comedy doesn't stop there. There are also conversations with his inappropriately frank boss, there's the way Maxine (Catherine Keener, 8mm) snubs Craig's advances, and there's a wonderful cameo by Charlie Sheen (will the surprises never stop!), who plays himself with stunning self-deprecation.

The only weak link in the cast is Malkovich himself. Needless to say, he's fine as himself, but when one of the Schwartz's takes over his body, he's unable to communicate the sense of puppetry that the movie calls for. Of course, comparisons to Steve Martin's mind-blowing performance in All of Me will always come up short, but I would've thought Malkovich could've pulled it off more than he does. If nothing else, though, he deserves high marks for the scene when he enters his own head, which leads to an excess of Malkovich that could only be achieved through trick photography.

But in the end, the question must be asked: what the heck is this movie about? Is it just an exercise in bizarre excess, or does it have something to say about the world we live in? I'd argue for the latter.

The most interesting thing about the first half of this film is how boring John Malkovich's life seems. When different characters enter his head, they're treated to John eating dinner, drying himself after a shower, getting ready to go out. Even two minutes of that got old, but everyone who tries it finds it transforming. So much so that they continually pay $200 for the chance to repeat it.

Clearly, director Spike Jonze (best known for his work in music videos like "Sabotage") and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman have chosen to film the most banal aspects of Malkovich's life. That others find these so fascinating, even compelling, is a sardonic commentary on the emptiness of American life (particularly the workplace, which is further ridiculed in other scenes)  and our worship of celebrities. Couple that with the theme of manipulation, found in the puppetry subtext as well as a few jabs at the media, and Being John Malkovich shapes up as more than just a surrealistic farce.

Jonze, along with cinematographer Lance Acord, also does a credible job with the cinematic qualities. There's a particularly fine scene where Lotte is chasing Maxine through Malkovich's subconscious that uses special effects and quick editing to maximum effect.

Being John Malkovich certainly isn't for everyone, maybe not even for many. Though it's very funny in places, the weirdness never lets up and the sexuality (particularly the strangest meange a trois ever) is off-putting. But in an age when so many movies are copying each other or just plain repeating what's come before, Jonze and his actors deserve credit for making something completely different.

J. Robert Parks  10/31/99

Charlie Kaufman's script for Being John Malkovich must have seemed too good to be true for those who first looked at the project.  The plot boasts the most original and daring comic premise in years.  It's Alice in Wonderland for this decade; its heroes crawl down rabbit holes into a world of gender role and sexual identity conflicts.  But all of Kaufman's genius depended on convincing one of the most notorious (and pretentious?) actors working today to deliver a self-effacing, sick, over-the-top self-parody.

Fortunately for audiences, John Malkovich accepted the challenge.  In a role reminiscent of Steve Martin in All of Me and Martin Short in Innerspace, Malkovich has given his most memorable performance, playing a fictionalized version of himself as that self is slowly manipulated by strange and sinister forces. I half-expected him to throw his arms wide and, like Short, shout "I'm possessed!!"

Director Spike Jonze makes bold choices himself.  This is his first feature film, and instead of making it bright and splashy, he paints it in dull colors, so dull in fact that I wondered if the projector bulb was going out at times.  He casts big name stars and then makes them almost unrecognizable in trashy clothes, with long frizzy or slimy hair, and no makeup.  Instead of pacing out the laughs and twists to leave room for sentiment or contemplation, he moves things along so quickly that there's no good opportunity for viewers to take a restroom break without missing important developments.  Jonze's camera frames the shots with claustrophobic tightness.  Even when we're not in the rabbit hole to Malkovich's brain, we're still uncomfortable.

This all serves what seems to be the film's theme: Most people are not happy with themselves, and they'd give anything to go where the grass is greener.  Malkovich, an actor with a reputation for excellence, taste, and sophistication, is a great target, partly because his innate weirdness makes us wonder what really is going on inside his head from day to day.  Thus, it's not that big a leap to imagine there are other people somewhere taking advantage of their chance to live inside his head. 

John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, an unshaven, long-haired puppeteer with an impossible dream of success.  To make ends meet for himself and his wife Lottie (the unrecognizably drab Cameron Diaz) he takes a job as a filing clerk on the 7 ½ floor of an office building (yes, you read that right).  The 7 ½ floor is a Wonderland in itself...a low-ceilinged environment with an odd array of employees who make our eccentric hero seem fairly normal and sympathetic (even though Craig and Lottie have a chimp and a parrot instead of children!)

And as weird as Craig's co-workers are, even they fade into the background when Cusack stumbles onto a small, secret door in the wall of his office... a tunnel into the brain of the movie's namesake.  It's called a "portal," and anybody who crawls through it can see through John Malkovich's eyes for fifteen minutes or so, before they end up back in the real world.  (Where they end up... well, that's the funniest running gag of the film.)

Of course, being a movie for the 90's, Malkovich's screenplay abandons many comic possibilities to remain focused on possibilities that deal with sexuality.  Not that that's such a bad thing; there are a lot of questions to consider here.  What happens when the voyeuristic visitors to Malkovich enter into intimate moments?  How can they use this to get into bed with their objects of desire?  What happens when a woman visits Malkovich's mind?  Etc., etc....

I kept bracing myself for the film to become a big statement about sexual identity.  Yes, there is a lot of perversity in action, as Craig and Lottie force Malkovich to serve their own sexual desires and fantasies.  We watch as these disillusioned spouses plunge their already troubled marriage headlong into chaos.  Once the gimmick with Malkovich is set up, the plot centers on how Craig tries to use him to seduce his smart and beautiful co-worker Maxine (the formidable Catherine Keener in a star-making peformace) only to have it backfire in the worst possible way.  Meanwhile, the company boss (another big surprise...Orson Bean!) has rather questionable involvement with Malkovich himself, which raises questions we haven't considered since, if you would believe this, Ron Howard's Cocoon!

But none of these plots are ever taken seriously enough to become any kind of "message" stronger than the aforementioned theme:  People are usually dreaming of being somebody else, and if they aren't true to themselves, trouble is bound to take place.  Thus, Being John Malkovich takes its place next to Fight Club as this year's ticket to the Twilight Zone.  Both films present a long list of intriguing questions and conflicts, but neither dwell on the questions long enough to preach.  While they are not without eye-opening observations along the way, they both stay focussed on telling their tongue-in-cheek stories, and end up being primarily mind-bending, envelope-pushing entertainment rather than politically-motiviated satire. 

Thus Malkovich doesn't do much more than titillate its audience.  How refreshing--a light and tasty snack during the season of heavy meals.  I'd rather watch an episode of Twilight Zone than a heavy-handed politically-motivated gender-role movie any day of the week.  (Oddly enough, the few moments in Malkovich that haunt me with beauty or metaphoric resonance are moments when our attentions are on Craig's puppets, which are masterfully crafted  by Czech puppetmaster Jan Svankmajer.)

Some critics have complained that the film is too long. Perhaps that is their reaction to periods when the movie strays from manic comedy and explores the effects Malkovich's influence is having on his controllers, which becomes something of a sordid psychological soap opera.  I did not feel the picture wore out its welcome.  I did, however, wish it might have explored other comic possibilities.  (Does Malkovich have any friends that might react to his changing behaviors? What other aspects of his fictional life might we explore besides his sex life and the way he eats breakfast?)  There's too strong an inclination here to explore only those corners that might offer sordid possibilities. You wouldn't want to live in this world--everybody's miserable with themselves and determined to get what they want no matter how many people they hurt along the way. (Isn't that essentially the same world we see in American Beauty?)

But in spite of its missed opportunities, Being John Malkovich remains the funniest and most creative movie of the year so far.  I agree with the critics who express astonishment that this script actually made it to the big screen today, alongside mediocre junk like Random Hearts and The Story of Us.  Seeing this, Fight Club, The Iron Giant, The Sixth Sense and The Limey all up on the big screen in one year is a promising step into a future where the unexpected just might become the norm.  Wouldn't that make moviegoing more fun?

Jeffrey Overstreet 11/30/99


 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Green Lake Reflections web page  and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com

 

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