Being John Malkovich Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

This article appeared in Issue 18 of Frontier, Australia's sci-fi media magazine

John MalkovichFrontier magazine

In addition to being hailed as one of the year's best films, "Being John Malkovich" also earns the title of being one of the most bizarre creations to hit the big screen-- not since the early days of David Lynch ("Blue Velvet") has an unorthodox story been told in such an intriguing manner. I first heard about "Being John Malkovich" back in 1997, while attending a screenwriter's conference in Los Angeles. Back then, one of the producers on a panel discussion mentioned some of the bizarre scripts that had come across his desk over the years, and as an example, he made reference to "Inside John Malkovich's Head", a script by Charlie Kaufman that had slid across his desk the week before. The script, which featured characters that had found a way to get inside actor John Malkovich's head, was an off-the-wall product of a twisted imagination. However, despite the unconventional subject matter of the script, the producer felt that this bizarre script was something special, and was in the process of having the titular American actor signed on for the film. And now, two years later, "Being John Malkovich" has arrived... well worth the wait.

How strange is "Being John Malkovich"? Well, for starters, the protagonist is Craig Schwartz (an almost unrecognizable John Cusack of "Pushing Tin"), a street puppeteer with an unfathomable passion for his art yet barely makes enough money to live on. He lives with his wife Lotte (an even more unrecognizable Cameron Diaz of "My Best Friend's Wedding"), who share their lives with their 'children', a small zoo of animals that require regular psychiatric counseling. Because of the money situation, Craig goes out to find a regular job, and he applies for the position of filing clerk, on the account of his agile fingers, which is the start of his bizarre journey.

My name is Craig Schwartz and I have an interview with Dr. Lester.
Please have a seat, Mr. Juarez.
My name is Schwartz.
My name is 'Wartz'?

John Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Cameron Diaz

The job in question is with Lestercorp, with offices on the seventh-and-a-half floor of a downtown office building. This 'half-floor' is exactly as it sounds, since it has only a four-foot clearance from floor to ceiling, wedged between the seventh and eighth floors (apparently, corporations locate their offices their due to the 'low overhead', which can then be passed on to their customers). After dealing with a hearing-impaired secretary (Mary Kay Place of "The Rainmaker"), Craig meets the head of Lestercorp, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), an eccentric and dirty old man, and is subsequently hired on the spot after answering some 'challenging' interview questions.

Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?

One day, while searching for a lost folder, Craig stumbles upon a small doorway hidden behind a filing cabinet. Upon entering, he is shunted into the 'head' of John Malkovich (playing himself), where he is able to look through the actor's eyes, hear through his ears, and feel what he feels. Unfortunately, the metaphysical experience lasts only a scant fifteen minutes, and Craig winds up being inexplicably spit out by the New Jersey Turnpike. Excited by his discovery, Craig lets a sexy coworker that he has a crush on, Maxine (Catherine Keener of "8mm"), in on his astounding discovery. She immediately sees the 'portal' as an opportunity to make some quick cash, and the two start charging people after-hours $200 for the privilege of 'being John Malkovich'. And that's when it gets REALLY strange...

You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, then after about fifteen minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike!

Orson Bean

"Being John Malkovich" deals with the themes of celebrity, control, and the entire creative process around any type of performance art (acting included). And though a number of films have taken potshots at the same topics over the years (including Woody Allen's "Celebrity" and Robert Altman's "The Player"), none have been so audacious in execution as this film. As "Being John Malkovich" unfurls, expectations are constantly being defied, storytelling clichés are being taken in completely new directions, and you find yourself genuinely surprised with each new revelation. In some ways, first-time director Spike Jonze (who had a starring role in "Three Kings") and scribe Kaufman have created the modern cinematic take on the Theatre of the Absurd, an art form that was best associated with playwright Samuel Beckett, whose works included "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame"... with possibly a bit of Monty Python thrown in for good measure.

You see, Maxine... it isn't just playing with dolls!
You're right my darling, it's so much more... it's playing with people!

And for those who are just out for a good time, "Being John Malkovich" offers up more than its fare share of laughs. With its acerbic 'mockumentary' look at stardom, great one-liners, hilarious situations, and a parade of great cameos (including Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt), "Being John Malkovich" doesn't skimp on keeping its audience entertained or even in stitches.

Can I buy you a drink, Maxine?
Are you married?
Yes, but enough about me.

The film's cast is also top-notch. Cusack, who usually looks more clean-cut in his other roles, is terrific as the film's hapless hero whose journey of discovery eventually becomes overpowering. Diaz, who sheds her usual good looks to play Lotte, is superlative as a simple woman whose passions are reawakened by the possibilities that are revealed to her. Keener, who always seems to do a great job no matter what material she is given, chews up the scenery with her character's wicked and manipulative ways. However, the greatest accolade performance-wise would have to go to Malkovich himself, who not only has a little fun with his public persona, but effortlessly redefines his character's mannerisms each time someone new pops into his head-- one memorable sequence has Malkovich acting as though he were being controlled by Cusack's character.

With all due respect, John, it's my portal!
But it's my head, Schwartz! It's my head!

"Being John Malkovich" is one of those films that must be seen to be believed. Unconventional in conception, irreverent in execution, and profound in interpretation, a film like this only comes around once in awhile. Completely unlike anything else that you've ever seen, "Being John Malkovich" is a film that is certain to stimulate many interesting and thoughtful discussions in the coffee shop afterwards.

Images courtesy of USA Films. All rights reserved.

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