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DVD review: ‘Being John Malkovich’ real, or a put-on?

DVD review: ‘Being John Malkovich’ real, or a put-on?
John Malkovich as John Horatio Malkovich, dancing like a marionette in Spike Jonze’s surreal and hilarious “Being John Malkovich.”
(Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

For whatever reason, 1999 was the best year for American film in at least three decades. With competition like “The Matrix,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Toy Story 2,” it was hard to pick a No. 1. And yet I’ll still stand by my choice of “Being John Malkovich” — a movie that managed to be vastly entertaining, funny, and moving, even while being indescribably far off all paths, beaten or unbeaten.

The original 2000 DVD was OK, but the new Criterion version is packed with a terrific bunch of extras that are true to the spirit of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. That is, it’s hard to determine how much of the material is real and how much an imaginary construct — what we usually call “a put-on.”

The included pamphlet is dominated by an interview of Jonze, conducted by culture critic Perkus Tooth ... except Tooth is, in fact, a fictional character created by Jonathan Lethem. In a 15-minute short, Jonze celebrates the film’s “30th anniversary” by showing us his on-set photography.

There is a director’s commentary — except the director on the track isn’t Jonze, but rather his friend Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Gondry’s accent is so thick as to be nearly incomprehensible, and the track only accompanies roughly an hour’s worth of scenes. Gondry seems slightly baffled by why he’s there, so thankfully, halfway through, he calls Jonze and puts him on speakerphone for the remainder. Their discussion keeps returning to Gondry’s jealousy and resentment over Jonze’s greater success, which seems to take Jonze by surprise.


Spontaneous? Pre-planned? Who knows?

There are also some more conventional supplements: A half-hour “making of”; a recent interview with Malkovich by John Hodgman; plus trailers and ads. Like the film itself, Criterion’s release is amusingly confounding and ambiguous.

“Being John Malkovich” (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95; DVD, two discs, $29.95)

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).