Friday October 29, 1999
"Being John Malkovich" is a clever and outrageous piece of whimsical fantasy that is unique, unpredictable and more than a little strange. You could see a lot of movies over a lot of years and not hear a line of dialogue as playful and bizarre as "I'll see you in Malkovich in one hour." What the heck is going on here?
The debut film for both director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman, "Being John Malkovich" takes a genuinely surreal premise and manages to make it more plausible than "Armageddon." It's an Alice in Wonderland film that slyly raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of reality, identity and self, and deals with them in a genially unhinged way.
Before we meet the film's namesake we are introduced to the life and work of New York hunger artist Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Craig is not starving by choice, it's just that there's a limited amount of demand for a puppeteer whose racy street-corner version of the story of Heloise and Abelard gets him regularly beaten up by irate pedestrians.
Craig's wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), works in a pet store and it's difficult to tell where her job ends and her life begins. There's a bird that awakens Craig with a chirpy "Time to get up" and a monkey that needs therapy for an ulcer brought on by suppressed childhood trauma.
Understandably anxious to get out of the house and needing the money, Craig's fast hands get him a job as a file clerk at LesterCorp, run by a 105-year-old fool for carrot juice named Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). LesterCorp is located on the Mini-me-sized 7 1/2th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer Building, a space so small Craig spends his entire time there bent in half just to fit in.
Craig hardly notices this discomfort, because on his first day on the job he gets infatuated with cold and conniving co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), a Ming the Merciless type who couldn't care less about him. "If you ever got me," she tells him in a rare moment of compassion, "you wouldn't have a clue what to do with me."
Then comes that pivotal moment when Craig discovers a tunnel hidden behind a file cabinet in the deep storage room. Curiosity leads him inside, and suddenly he's whoosed out of sight only to find himself looking out at the world through the eyes of (yes, it's really him) actor John Malkovich. For a brief period of time--which invariably ends with him being inexplicably dumped out somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike--Craig has found a way to literally be in someone else's skin.
Though this experience, as one character puts it, "opens a metaphysical can of worms," for a puppeteer like Craig it's a dream come true. It also proves powerfully addictive, not only for him but later on for wife Lotte and even Maxine.
For Craig's discovery of this strange portal makes him immediately more interesting to the clever Maxine. Ever entrepreneurial, she dreams of letting the rest of the world in on the Malkovich experience. For a price, of course, with an ad line perfectly suited to these celebrity-addicted times: "Be all that someone else can be."
In addition to doing a capital job of impersonating his haughty and distant public persona, the real John Malkovich deserves thanks for allowing this goofy charade to go on: The filmmakers say they couldn't imagine any other actor in this pivotal spot. And co-stars Cusack, Diaz (both of whom look different than they ever have on screen) and Keener enter into the spirit of the piece with energy, daring and a zest for the unusual.
That's even more true for director Jonze, who displays the same kind of unexpected delight in playing with reality that he used in music videos and celebrated commercials for Nike and Nissan trucks. His gift here is being able to treat a highly unusual scenario as if it were the most normal of situations, guiding audiences who have no idea where they're going because no one's ever been there before.
Credit for thinking up this delirious and delicious situation goes to writer Kaufman, who has a truly singular imagination. Kaufman says he wrote the script "without an outline, blindly, with no sense of direction," and if this film has a flaw it's the way that technique ultimately catches up with him.
For once "Being John Malkovich" determines it has to explain itself, what it comes up with is not only flimsy but barely understandable and harder to credit than what we've experienced with our own eyes. That throws a bit of a wrench into the proceedings, but finally we side with the character who says, "Art always tells the truth even when it's lying." It may not be clear just what that means, but like the rest of the "Malkovich" experience it's a lot of fun going down.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Being John Malkovich, 1999. R, for language and sexuality. Gramercy Pictures presents a Propaganda Films/Single Cell Pictures production, released by USA Films. Director Spike Jonze. Producers Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin, Vincent Landay. Executive producers Charlie Kaufman, Michael Kuhn. Screenplay Charlie Kaufman. Cinematographer Lance Acord. Editor Eric Zumbrunnen. Costumes Casey Storm. Production design K.K. Barrett. Music Carter Burwell. Art director Peter Andrus. Set decorator Gene Serdena. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. John Cusack as Craig Schwartz. Cameron Diaz as Lotte Schwartz. Catherine Keener as Maxine. Orson Bean as Dr. Lester. Mary Kay Place as Floris. John Malkovich as John Malkovich.