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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 Greg King
3½ stars out of 4

Rarely have the ideas of a writer and the creative vision of a director been so in synch as with this delightfully off beat and surreal black comedy about an out of work puppeteer who discovers a mysterious portal into the head of actor John Malkovich. What is even more surprising is that Being John Malkovich is the first feature film from both writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, better known for his rock video clips for artists such as the Beastie Boys, Fat Boy Slim and REM.

Unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is pushed into finding a real job by his animal loving wife Lotte (an unrecognisable Cameron Diaz). He ends up working as a filing clerk for a firm buried away in an office stranded on the legendary 71/2 floor, located halfway between the seventh and eighth floor of a city office block. One day he discovers a boarded up door behind a row of filing cabinets. Intrigued he enters the door, only to find himself inside a tunnel that somehow transports him into the head of noted American thespian John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons, etc).

When he tells his colleague Maxine (a perfectly bitchy Catherine Keener, from 8MM, etc) about the secret portal, she decides to turn it into a business and charge people for the rare opportunity to enter someone else's mind. An unusual sexual triangle also develops between Schwartz, his wife Lotte and Maxine, with Malkovich himself reluctantly caught in the middle.

Malkovich even proves that he is a good sport with his enthusiastic participation in this film. When he was offered the script, Malkovich could easily have run the other way, but instead he sends up his normally intense and serious persona with rare relish. The scene in which Malkovich uses the portal to enter inside his own head is the most outlandish moment in a film crammed full of unusual ideas, outrageous plot elements and unexpected developments. Unfortunately not everything in the film is completely successful, and some moments fall a little flat.

Being John Malkovich is a film of dark comic genius that asks audiences to consider what they would do if they could be someone else, even if only for fifteen minutes at a time. Kaufman's absurd but sharp and cleverly written script draws a potent link between sex, power and manipulation, but there is also something of a nasty streak to its eccentric sense of humour. Given its bizarre premise, this decidedly quirky comedy could have been a first class disaster, but first time director Jonze handles the material with an assurance and inventiveness that somehow makes it all work. Cusack brings a manic energy to his role that seems to propel the film along nicely. Jonze has cleverly cast his actors against type, thus subverting audience's expectations for much of the film. There are also brief cameos from the likes of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and others, that add a certain stamp of authenticity to the bizarre chain of events.

Being John Malkovich is a surprisingly inventive film that stuffs in more original ideas than most other films this year. It is certainly one of 1999's most unusual and challenging, yet surprisingly enjoyable films.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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