Being John Malkovich (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

These days, critics (and non-critics, for that matter) are fond of complaining about how multiplexes are populated by cookie-cutter motion pictures that follow safe, formula-derived patterns designed to please audiences who want a different version of a story they have already seen dozens of times. And, while there's some truth to the maxim that "there's nothing new under the sun," Being John Malkovich tries hard to be the exception. Admittedly, the themes addressed by the movie - those of identity, celebrity, and manipulation - are familiar, but the manner in which director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman address them is fresh and inventive. I'm not arrogant enough to claim that nothing like Being John Malkovich has ever previously been committed to celluloid, but, if it has been, I haven't seen it.

This is the first movie to be directed by Jonze, who cut his teeth doing TV commercials and music videos. Unless you're isolated from all aspects of pop culture, you've probably seen his work. (He also has one of the four primary roles in Three Kings.) As is the case with many of the so-called "MTV filmmakers," Jonze displays a strong sense of style. However, unlike most of his contemporaries, he does not rely on quick cuts and visual gimmicks. He has sound, mature cinematic instincts.

Kaufman's script is not constrained by viewer expectations. For about 110 minutes, he pushes the envelope, taking us in new and unexpected directions. Every time I thought I recognized where Being John Malkovich was headed, the movie surprised me. The screenplay is as funny as it is clever. Some of the jokes are of the "big laugh" variety, but few are representative of the cheap shots and dumb humor that have become commonplace in '90s offerings. Being John Malkovich revels in smart comedy instead of wallowing in the opposite. And, alongside the laughter, there's plenty of material for contemplation. Cinematically speaking, this is a well-balanced, multi-course meal.

The premise is as intriguing and offbeat as it is difficult to adequately describe in a few sentences. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a master puppeteer, but, after being out of work for a while, he is becoming restless, so his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), suggests that he swallow his pride and get a job - any job. Since he has nimble fingers, he decides to apply for a position as a filing clerk. The job in question is on the 7 1/2th story of a New York City office building - a floor that is four feet from carpet to ceiling ("low overhead") and can only be reached by stopping the elevator between the 7th and 8th stories and prying open the door with a crow bar. After a successful interview with the firm's sex-obsessed, carrot juice-drinking, 105 year old boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), Craig gets the job and meets his co-workers, including Floris (Mary Kay Place), the hearing-impaired secretary, and Maxine (Catherine Keener), a sexy brunette who allows Craig to flirt with her even though she has no interest.

One day, while searching for a lost file behind a cabinet in his office, Craig discovers a hidden door. Venturing through it, he is sucked into a portal that lands him inside the brain of John Malkovich, where Craig can look out the actor's eyes and experience what he feels. It's the ultimate in voyeurism, but it doesn't last for long. 15 minutes after Craig enters Malkovich, the portal spits him out, dropping him from the sky and landing him alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. He returns home and tells his wife, who wants to try the portal for herself. He also reveals the secret to Maxine, and, while he ponders "the metaphysical can of worms" the portal unleashes, she sees it as an opportunity to sell tickets: $200 a pop to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes.

For those who think I have given away too much, this is only the background and basic setup presented in the film's first half-hour. Being John Malkovich ventures into much deeper and stranger territory. I haven't written anything about the chimp who goes to a psychiatrist for feelings of insecurity or the man who, like a modern day Dorian Gray, has plans to live forever. Somehow, Jonze and Kaufman blend all of these disparate elements together without missing a beat.

Unlike most comedies, which go for laughs without worrying about depth, Being John Malkovich has both. The film raises questions about the nature of identity, and how some people are only completely free when their real self is hidden behind a mask or beneath a costume. With Craig as a puppet-master and Maxine playing him like a musical instrument, issues of manipulation rise to the surface. How much of what we do in our day-to-day lives involves attempting to pull the strings of others, or having our own strings pulled? Being John Malkovich also addresses the appeal of stardom with greater impact than Woody Allen's Celebrity. Certainly, some of those willing to pay to enter the portal are interested in having a temporary personality transference, but others want the experience of being a star. In fact, taken as a whole, this could all be seen as a commentary on the crafts of acting (taking on an alternative identity) and directing (manipulating others). Beyond that, there are issues of ethics and commercialism (will we exploit anything?), as well as addiction (some customers become addicted to the experience). And, for those who like to see the dark side of things, the film offers unsettling threads about the annihilation of identity and the price of immortality. Is this too much material for one movie? Not with Jonze at the helm and a capable cast in front of the cameras.

That cast is headed by John Cusack, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors. Cusack (last seen in Pushing Tin) has astonishing versatility and is able to thoroughly inhabit the skin of any character he plays. Craig isn't the most pleasant of men - during the course of the film, he does some unconscionable things - but Cusack is so effective that we form a tenuous bond with him anyway. As Lotte, Cameron Diaz is almost unrecognizable. Like her male co-star, she disappears into the character (with the help of an atypical hair style). Catherine Keener, for years the muse of filmmaker Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion), continues to show why she has always deserved the greater exposure she is starting to get.

Then there's John Malkovich, who plays an exaggerated, fictionalized version of himself. Although that might initially seem like a simple role, it isn't, especially considering that Malkovich must re-invent himself as a man being possessed by others. His performance is flawless, mixing a version of the world-weary actor with an imitation of John Cusack and a touch of Steve Martin from All of Me. Jonze and Kaufman chose Malkovich as the title character because they wanted someone who is both well-known and a little elusive. Having appeared in the likes of The Killing Fields, Dangerous Liaisons, In the Line of Fire, Of Mice and Men, and The Man in the Iron Mask, Malkovich is certainly a familiar face, but his varied choice of roles has kept him just out of the realm of superstardom. And it's refreshing to see an actor participate in the process of parodying his personality and image.

The movie is surreal precisely because Jonze plays everything straight. The characters are not aware that they're in some kind of distorted reality, gazing through the looking glass darkly. Like Alice, they try to believe three impossible things each day before breakfast. This approach aids in the willing suspension of disbelief, drawing us into the story rather than distancing us and forcing us to gaze at the proceedings from the outside, looking for seams in the plot. Being John Malkovich is one of those rare cinematic experiences that works on one level or another for nearly everyone who sees it. It is a triumphant debut for Spike Jonze.

Being John Malkovich (United States, 1999)

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, John Malkovich, Charlie Sheen
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: USA Films
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1