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Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze, 1999, 110 min.

Is it inevitable that the typical twists and turns in the movies become predictable and boring? Can jaded viewers expect anything new from big-budget movies (the most common type of science fiction movie nowadays), unavoidably constrained as they are by the necessity of return-on-investment? What's more, each genre of film has its own laws that have developed, from the 10 minute interval between explosions in action movies to the false scare followed by the real scare in horror movies. Far from fighting these trends, Hollywood seems to reinforce them in order to keep the seats full with moviegoers who will get exactly what they expect. While I enjoy rubbishy sci-fi action blockbusters as much as the next person, I also crave something more, something stranger, wilder. Being John Malkovich fills my quota of the crazy for quite some time. Several times during the course of this film I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen next, only to be completely baffled by a turn of events in the opposite direction. What bliss!

The premise of Being John Malkovich is easy to explain: one character finds a tunnel that leads to John Malkovich's brain. Simple to explain, but it is the variations on this premise that make the movie such a delight. You only get to spend 15 minutes in Malkovich's brain before you get dumped out beside the New Jersey turnpike. As fast as you can come up with questions about the premise, the movie answers them in twists too perfect to reveal here. What would happen if Malkovich himself went through the tunnel? What would happen if more than one more person went through? What are the origins and purpose of the tunnel? Do you get to control Malkovich's body or are you only a hapless passenger? Would somebody else be able to tell if Malkovich has a passenger?

This is all wonderful speculation, but the best surprise of Being John Malkovich is that it is a character piece. Considering all the exposition necessary to carry these high-concept happenings in the plot, the characterization is a marvel of economical writing. About 35 or 40 minutes of the movie elapse before the tunnel is found, and Kaufman and Jonze put that slower start to good use. Craig Schwartz, played wonderfully by John Cusack, is an out-of-work puppeteer, down on his luck, and desperately hoping for a break of some kind. Cameron Diaz plays Lotte Schwartz, Craig's wife, with a kind of astonishing lack of glam -- she is virtually unrecognizable as the dowdy wife. Lotte convinces Craig to look for a real job, and he finds one in the strangest location (the 7 1/2 floor of an office building in one of the funnier running gags of the film). Almost immediately, he falls in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), a glamourous co-worker. Maxine is highly amused by the attention and plays with Craig's affections rather cruelly.

All of this changes when Craig finds the fateful tunnel behind some filing cabinets. After one trip through the tunnel, Craig is entranced by the "metaphysical can of worms," but Maxine has big plans, and the two of them set up a business that charges people for the trip. Meanwhile, Craig tells Lotte about the possibility of being John Malkovich; after just one trip, Lotte is completely hooked, and for the first time, we see some spark of life in her character. From here on in, the movie plays like the fondest wishes of all those science fiction stories that want to examine gender and identity but don't quite pull it off (and it's one of the rare genre efforts onscreen, like Blade Runner, that seem to be ahead of science fiction in print). I don't want to reveal more about the plot, as this is where it gets good and the surprises in store for the audience are simply too wonderful to ruin. Suffice it to say that we can stay with the wild twists and turns because the characters have been set up so carefully and their actions follow one another credibly, not because the script demanded they do one thing over another (I've noticed that some criticism of the movie contends that the characters jump around inconsistently -- Lotte in particular is singled out here, but I would like to point out that after her first Malkovich trip she comes right out and says, "This changes everything." In combination with an event that is indeed a head trip, that seems like enough motivation for even a drastic change). Personally, I didn't see the attraction of Maxine's character, as she was shallow and manipulative, but both Craig and Lotte are shown very carefully to be naive and a little off-balance. The ending of the film was impeccably weird; beatific music plays as a young child swims in a pool and a frantic voice whispers in our ears. Another surprise, of course!

A special vote of courage should go to John Malkovich himself. Not only is the movie version of Malkovich a shallow womanizer, but also the entire concept of the film would be too much for most actors to even consider taking the part. Malkovich hams it up where appropriate (the dance of despair, for example), but he gives a very solid performance that becomes the hinge of the movie. Without such great acting from Malkovich, the film would have been unworkable. Because he gives such an intense and committed performance, Being John Malkovich becomes, rather than a mockery or a joke, a kind of tribute to the special genius of the man, John Horatio Malkovich. He's clearly in on the joke, and he knows how to play the various levels of artifice.

DVD Note: The DVD edition of Being John Malkovich has a few extras but nothing stellar. Two of the funnier pseudo-documentary pieces from the movie, "The 7 1/2 Floor," the orientation video for Craig's new job, and "American Arts and Culture Presents: John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment," are included, as well as a short featurette on puppeteering, "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering." I was hoping for an audio commentary of some kind but the DVD includes little from director Spike Jonze and nothing from writer Charlie Kaufman.


First posted: January 4, 2000; Last modified: March 13, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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