When I first heard the premise of "Being John Malkovich", it was hard to
accept the reality that one day such a film would be made, and I would be
able to sit and watch it. Now I've seen it twice -- once last November, at
the Stella Screen Film Festival, and again this week, at the dawn of its
general release. But I still haven't quite got my head round it. If I'm not
giving it four stars, perhaps one of the reasons is that I need to see it a
few more times before its full force really sinks in.
The movie is like a walk through a long maze of rooms, where each new door
provides a hilariously bizarre payoff to the last. Consider these opening
scenes. We meet Craig Schwarz (John Cusack), a scruffy street puppeteer who
doesn't make much money because his shows are too blasphemous and carnal. His
wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) encourages him to get an office job until
marionette work starts to pay; she's raising a chimp, and needs some serious
cash. Craig becomes employed as a file clerk on floor seven-and-a-half of a
New York City skyscraper. (The ceilings are very low.) The boss (Orson Bean)
is a 105-year old pervert obsessed with carrot juice, and his secretary (Mary
Kay Place) is a paranoid deaf flirt. Even more odd is a hole in the wall of
Craig's office, which turns out to be a portal into the mind of
world-renowned actor John Malkovich. It can suck people into the man's brain
for fifteen minutes and then spit them out onto a ditch on the side of the
New Jersey Turnpike.
Craig's co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) is determined to exploit the
discovery. She takes out a classified ad and sells tickets. The next stages
of the plot involve the other ways she uses the situation, and Malkovich's
discovery of what's going on. I don't want to reveal too much; this is just
the set-up, and the movie keeps unfolding with eccentric developments and
devices, which are so delightful because they seem to emerge out of a
perfectly logical progression. Every event leads to the next quite
reasonably, and the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, gives each one a different
flavour. In one scene near the beginning of the movie, for example, we're
laughing at the outrageousness of Craig's puppet show. After that enterprise
fails, and he gets his job on floor seven-and-a-half, the awkward visuals
inspire giggles. Later there will be clever celebrity satire, when Craig
figures out how to control Malkovich's body and turns him into a famed
puppeteer, and we see a TV documentary featuring stars gushing over his
talents with ludicrous hyperbole.
Spike Jonze, who directed, brings the twisted turns of his picture to life by
shooting them in dark, dramatic tones with a subtle hand-held camera. It's
close enough to documentary style to make things somehow plausible, a feeling
that is encouraged by the actors, who take things seriously and play their
roles with sincerity. That attitude, as I'm always saying, is necessary for
comedy to work properly; it's the audacity of the film's situations that
creates laughter. "Being John Malkovich" has an exciting enough gimmick, in
that it has its title figure playing a supernatural version of himself. It's
even more extraordinary to show people entering his mind (including himself),
developing and acting on sexual attractions within it, and using it as a
vessel for re-writing history and enjoying everlasting life.
The profound skill of Malkovich's performance doesn't hit our conscious mind
until after we leave the cinema. As most reviews have pointed out, he creates
a distinctive character out of his own pompous image, but his more
complicated scenes are those in which he's been inhabited by other people.
His adoption of their mannerisms is so committed that we forget he's acting.
We just believe it. Malkovich is the man onscreen, but we think we're
watching Cusack, or whoever, walking around in his body.
I am rambling. Exciting films will make me do that. Take it as a strong
recommendation, and not a sign that I need to take writing classes. And when
you see "Being John Malkovich", remember to concentrate hard, as paying
attention to its small details turns out to be very rewarding. Listen
carefully for names of companies, a mention of a plank of wood, and Orson
Bean's explanation of why a certain journey cannot be taken after a certain
deadline. Intriguing? Good.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic