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Being John Malkovich

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Being John Malkovich

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz
Director: Spike Jonze
Rated: R
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: October 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, W. Earl Brown, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen, Spike Jonze

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Have you ever felt imprisoned in your own body, wishing that you could go somewhere else like a member of the witness protection program with a new name, new job and even a new personality? Have you ever tried with unfailing energy to get another person to see things your way: to get the promotion you want, the romantic attachment you crave, the organization you've always wanted to join? How far would you be willing to go to make money; that is, would you be agreeable to invading a person's privacy by setting up a telescope in your office and soliciting fees from people who want to look into the rooms of the buildings across the street? Have you ever wanted to be famous, not just for fifteen minutes, but to be the sort who'd have to wear sunglasses just to take a walk around the block lest you be swamped by autograph hounds? Finally, have you ever been annoyed by people who ask you questions like these?

Chances are good that your answer is yes to all of the above. That's the nature of the beast: to want what the other guy has, to be what the other fellow is, if only for a while. There's a movie out there that explores all of these big themes and does so in ways that make it not only hands-down the most original cinematic work of the year but one of the most absorbing, amusing, and thought-provoking. "Being John Malkovich" plays around with The Big Issues Of Our Time And Every Other: Identity, Manipulation, and Ethics. That's quite a tall order for a film that's under two hours in duration, but "Being John Malkovich," one of the favorites of the recent New York Film Festival, succeeds in doing all this while combining the genres of science fiction, romantic comedy, and psychological thriller.

Surprisingly, this work of utter singularity comes from the helmsmanship of a first-time movie director, Spike Jonze, heretofore known principally for his work as a maker of music videos and for his role as Private Conrad Vig in David O. Russell's "Three Kings." Using the talents of performers who are easily recognized for their commercial movies--John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Charlie Sheen; and those better known for their employment in the indies such as Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, Mary Kay Place, and Orson Beene--Jonze brings Charlie Kaufman's screenplay to vivid, surreal life. Though the final one-third of the story becomes convoluted after the introduction of far too many people, overall the wit, the novelty, the risk-taking make this a must-see experience, a welcome change of pace from Hollywood's diet of predictable, formulaic, feel-good fare.

The story opens on a dazzling performance of puppetry by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) whose job offers are too few and far betweeeen, relegated to second-string status by a gimmicky puppeteer who draws the crowds to shows involving a 60-foot tall statue. Encouraged to look for a job by his ditzy wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz)--who runs a pet store and keeps a neurotic monkey in their home--he answers an ad requesting a fellow with fast fingers for filing. The office is on floor 7-1/2, and has a four-foot ceiling--to keep its overhead low, according to the boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). Craig gets the job, begins to flirt fruitlessly with a co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), and soon has dinner with his carrot-juice-addicted employer who, he learns, is 105 years old. (The key to the plot, as we find out later, is that carrot juice is not the secret of his longevity, but that a periodic change of identity is.)

The fun comes partly from dialogue that could have been stolen from Saturday Night Live, as when Craig attempts to communicate with a secretary who has a form of dyslexia of the ear. But most of the amusement is visual. Craig discovers a secret tunnel behind a filing cabinet that leads directly into the head of John Malkovich. Anyone who crawls through the passage enters the actor's top, sees life through Malkovich's eyes, and is spit out in 15 minutes onto a grassy area overlooking the New Jersey Turnpike. The plot thickens when Craig's wife and his co-worker Maxine form a sexual attachment much to the dismay of the man who wants Maxine for himself, leading Craig to manipulate events inside John Malkovich's head to trick Maxine into thinking that he is really Lotte.

Themes involving mistaken identity have been milked for laughs ever since the days of Greek theater, later reinforced by the Elizabethans before becoming a staple of modern comedy. But not even Shakespeare would have come up with the wild and woolly developments of this parody, which among other themes tackles the very making of movies itself. When Craig finds that his skill as a puppeteer comes in extra handy in this case, he becomes like a film director, manipulating John Malkovich to do his bidding. And when Lotte takes on the identity of John Malkovich, she assumes the role of the actor, one who may be mousey in real life but aggressive and sensual when performing in the guise of a wholly different person.

As if the originality of this plot were not enough, "Being John Malkovich" benefits from some surprisingly adept acting by people relatively unknown such as Orson Bean (who had once written a book popularizing the ideas of psychologist Wilhelm Reich) as the lecherous 105-year-old boss, and Catherine Keener, who was equally dependable as the cynical wife of Ben Stiller in Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors." Cameron Diaz, virtually unrecognizable in a frizzy brown wig, eschews her usual sexy characteristics and comes across wonderfully as the frustrated woman who realizes that she would like to become a transsexual; and John Cusack is super as the nerdy fellow as frustrated in the bedroom as in the board room who ultimately overcomes his helplessness in both areas. Though many in the audience may not have seen John Malkovich in other films (he performed in the arty "Dangerous Liaisons" and is a quirky man indeed in the upcoming "The Messenger"), few are likely to forget him after watching him show us that actors, like normal human beings, eat toast in the morning, become confused quite often, and are generally at least as vulnerable as the rest of us.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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