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Being John Malkovich

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 November 1999


Directed by Spike Jonze.

Starring John Cusack, 
Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, 
Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, 
Charlie Sheen and John Malkovich.

Written by Charlie Kaufman.

Thank you, Spike Jonze! Thank you, Charlie Kaufman! And, of course, thank you, John Malkovich! Being John Malkovich is one of the oddest, funniest, imaginative fantasies to fall off the screen since Buckaroo Banzai heroically dropped across the Eighth Dimension fifteen years ago. Wacky, wild, side-splitting, and refreshing as all hell. And then some. For this skewered cautionary fairy tale you’re the Pinocchio and director Jonze (graduating from award-winning music videos and commercials in his brilliant feature debut) and screenwriter Kaufman (his inspired first produced work) are the Geppettos casually jerking your strings, much like they are manipulating Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a creative yet failed puppeteer. His ten-year, passionless marriage to the schlumpy Lotte (Cameron Diaz), a pet store employee, is just as frayed as everything in their dumpy apartment. The diapered Elijah, a pet chimp staying with them, has his own psychological troubles, Lotte insists, and damned if his childhood traumas don’t get revealed in the simian’s own sepia-toned flashback. Cool.

Jonze, who appeared as the loutish Private Conrad opposite George Clooney in Three Kings, now turns positively Conradian, strutting his dark stuff behind the camera, propping sight gags and outlandish situations up in domino fashion for one hilarious Rube Goldberg cascade after another. Kaufman’s marvelous creation is molded with such blistering, yet absurdly spontaneous force, that its breath-taking originality induces you to keep putting you hand up to catch your jaw from dropping. Good thing it’s late in the season (well it is here in the East), otherwise we’d all be catching flies.

The premise, which doesn’t do the film justice when reduced to printed words, finds Craig on the other side of the marionette and emotional strings when he begins work as a filing clerk for LesterCorp., located in a seemingly routine Manhattan office building, except for being stuck in the cramped half-floor between the seventh and eighth stops on the elevator (bring your crowbar). It’s a Twilight Zone world filled with the batty perhaps secretive, 105-year-old (and still horny) Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) and his ditsy, hearing-impaired receptionist Floris (Mary Kay Place). When a folder drops behind a filing cabinet in the Deep Storage room, Craig discovers a small doorway with a glass knob. It’s big enough for a white rabbit, but there’s none (visible) pulling him in, yet he enters and finds himself inside you know who, reading the morning paper and munching on toast, an observer for a quarter hour before being dumped, damp as a mop, in a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. This fascinating portal offers Craig a chance to seduce fellow worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), but she’s more interested in the commercial aspects of this surrealistic window, offering $200 tickets to all takers for their 15 minutes of fame, advertising the excursion with the come on “Ever want to be someone else?”

Of course, it’s not all that simple, as sexual identities and repressed desires begin to unravel, while Craig overstays at the Malkovich Red Roof Inn a little too long (and with a decided Machiavellian slant), pulling strings while hiding out in the actor-turned-master puppeteer’s head. The film takes a decidedly bleak turn as it nears its conclusion, with anxious intrigue and plot twists around every corner. It’s all devilish and delicious in its own goofy way.

There are millions of dark laughs here, none hurled at you like a custard pie. They’re served up over easy, like the LesterCorp orientation video, a spoof of those badly-acted industrial films, a mockumentary delving into the history of the shortness-obsessed company. Or a running gag, starting with a confused cab driver insisting he liked Malkovich portraying a jewel thief, despite the actor’s insistence that he never played such a character. There’s also evidence of a Maxine action figure (send me one!). But, oh, when J.M. takes matters into his own head, that’s one of the most imaginative cinematic conundrums you’re ever likely to see, outside of an episode of Star Trek.

The cast couldn’t be better in evoking the madness found here, and they jump into this revisionist Coen/Gilliam world with earnest, deadpan glee, particularly Cusack as the frazzled, long-haired second banana puppet meister. As Craig, he’s a genius in his own mind, stuck in neutral, be it his profession or his life, screaming for recognition and relief. Diaz dumps her gorgeous façade for an unrecognizable, greasy lunatic spin. Keener shines as the lust object for Craig, Lotte, and Malkovich. I’ve admired her ever since Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, another well-scripted effort. Of course John Malkovich’s expedition into self-parody will further cap a career already filled with success. Mary Kay Place and Orson Bean rise to the occasion with offbeat interpretations, while Charlie Sheen pops up as himself, a confidant to Malkovich concerned about his sexual underpinnings, innocuously wondering if John might be interested in “hot lesbian witches,” a throwaway thought that might be closer in truth to the film’s insane reality than you think. Sean Penn and Brad Pitt get a few seconds of screen time too, joining in on the fun.

Technical kudos to frequent Jones collaborators K.K. Barrett for simple, effective production design, and director of photography Lance Acord for capturing the mayhem with appropriate gloom. Carter Burwell, a Coen brothers’ alumni, has rearranged the same motifs he used in last year’s Gods and Monsters. It works just as well the second time around.

This is a film YOU MUST SEE TO BELIEVE. Ripley’s, move over!

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