Being John Malkovich (1999)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen.
1999 112 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 4, 1999.
When you go see movies on a regular basis, you are bound to become more savvy in the calculations of any one story, being able to pinpoint elements that have been done just a few too many times in previous films for it to be surprising or particularly memorable. Sometimes, you want to see a movie so that it will take you on some sort of journey that has never, or rarely, been taken before in the world of film.
Such is the case with director Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich," which is bound to be one the most unusual motion pictures of 1999. And I don't mean in a David Lynchian sort of way, because while it may have hints of that "Twin Peaks" helmer's trademark weirdness and peculiarities, it has an overall style all its own. Just the thought that someone actually conjured up such an inventive tale (screenwriter Charlie Kaufman) gives hope for further innovative motion pictures that may be struggling through the pipeline simply because they are too "strange" to actually be made. In that respect, "Being John Malkovich" is groundbreaking in its sheer abandon of conventional plots, and in its embrace of nothing but complete originality.
While the story may seem confusing, it surprisingly makes total sense (well, at least as much of it as one can possibly understand). Ultimately, one could even see how, in lesser hands, this film could have been disastrous. Its tricky tone was, no doubt, difficult to perfect, as it is an out-and-out fantasy, but set in a very realistic present day New York City, yet relies on its offbeat humor to pull off the act. In fact, the comedy needed to be successful because, otherwise, the film would have just been too preposterous. One of the delights about "Being John Malkovich" is how very funny it is--easily one of the most laugh-inducing I've seen this year--and once the viewer settles into its oddball tone, the film entertains, excites, and is even thought-provoking in its handling of such issues as identity discovery and the manipulation over others.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a down-on-his-luck master puppeteer without a job and much money, living in a Manhattan apartment with his pet store-owning and animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Tired of his life going nowhere, Craig finds an ad in the classifieds and answers the position of a filing clerk--on the 7 1/2th floor of an office building, where the ceiling is just four feet high. The inhabitants of the floor are an unusual bunch, including Floris (May Kay Place), the hearing-impaired secretary who misunderstands almost everything a person says and, yet, believes it is not she, but them that have the handicap; and the 105-year-old boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who is convinced Floris cannot understand him because he has a speech impediment (when Craig tells Dr. Lester that he can understand him perfectly fine, his reply is, "Flattery will get you nowhere with me."). And then there's Maxine (Catherine Keener), an alluring, beautiful woman whom Craig instantly falls head over heels for, even though the feeling is clearly not mutual.
One day, when Craig accidentally drops a file behind a stack of cabinets in his office, he removes them from the wall to find a small doorway, large enough to crawl through. Opening it up and venturing inside the seemingly never-ending tunnel, a force abruptly blows him through the portal, and he suddenly finds himself in the mind of actor John Malkovich, peering through his eyes--but only for a 15-minute period--after which he is dumped upon the embankment next to the New Jersey Turnpike. It's a bit tricky to say much more, in fear of giving away too much (even though, believe me, I haven't even scratched the surface), but suffice to say, in a plot to make money, Craig and Maxine start their own business where anyone can go into Malkovich's mind for $200 a pop. Meanwhile, Craig and Lotte both become addicted to being able to take over the identity of another person, sparked by their unhappiness in the lives they currently lead.
One might wonder why John Malkovich, playing a version of himself very well, is the celebrity that was chosen as the subject of the film, but it does sort of have a symmetry to it, since he is a consistently well-received actor who the casual filmgoer most likely has heard of, but knows nothing about. A running joke in the film is that the characters can't think of any movies he's been in, even though they seem to remember him playing a jewel thief. The ingenious idea of being able to get inside the mind of another human being is something I do not recall ever being done before, and while obviously far-fetched, the film is realistic in its portrayal of people who find themselves being swept away by the thought of being someone else, someone more successful and respected than they are.
The three central characters are portrayed by a talented crop of actors who take every role they play, and run with them. John Cusack is very good as Craig, a man with very little self-esteem and bad posturing (he walks slumped over, even when not on the 7 1/2th floor). Of the three major roles, however, Craig is the least interesting and flashy one, and he doesn't go through as much of an internal transformation like the others do. Cusack is flawlessly cast and does a fine job with what he is given, but if there is an underwritten role here, it is his.
When Cameron Diaz first appeared on the scene in 1994's "The Mask," it's difficult to believe anyone could have suspected she was such a stunningly diverse talent, not to mention one of the most intelligent actresses of her generation. Diaz can star as the likable love interest in a blockbuster film (1998's "There's Something About Mary"), but is just as likely to try something a little more risky and challenging (a crazed, self-absorbed bride-to-be in 1998's "Very Bad Things"). With "Being John Malkovich," Diaz gives her most assured performance to date, as the frizzy-haired, frumpy Lotte, and is nearly unrecognizable compared to the beauty she really is. In a plot development that won't be revealed here, Lotte comes to a life-altering realization after her first trip inside John Malkovich's mind. While outrageous on first thought, it is also oddly believable and wholly makes sense when you think about it in the context of the character.
Catherine Keener, a marvel to behold in every single film she appears in, exudes an outer iciness on first appearance, as Maxine, but wisely is developed into a confused and lonely three-dimensional character by the film's second half. Working in the world of indie films for several years, Keener is just now breaking out into bigger roles in more high-profile projects, and good for her. She deserves all the attention she is just starting to receive.
The writing, by Charlie Kaufman, is full of such intelligent, dry wit and appropriately goofy ideas, that the film is a comic goldmine, even among the more serious aspects of the story. The opening sections, especially, almost had me on the verge of completely breaking down at the thought of its sheer hilarity. Director Spike Jonze (who had an impressive acting role as the fourth king in "Three Kings") proves here to be one of the most exciting and fresh current filmmakers, and kudos to him for obtaining the willpower and courage to film such a purely individualistic creation. "Being John Malkovich" is a stunner through-and-through, and can safely stand as one of the very best motion pictures of the season.
©1999 by Dustin Putman