Review: 'Being John Malkovich' -- reality bitten
November 3, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Spike Jonze's surrealistic mind-bender of a comedy, "Being John Malkovich," lies somewhere beyond the realm of casual description. Jonze plays with our perceptions of reality, reason, fame and identity in ways that call to mind everyone from David Lynch to the Monty Python gang, with a healthy dose of Franz Kafka thrown in for good measure. That sounds pretentious, and it is to a certain degree.
But the inventive cast -- including John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and, yes, John Malkovich -- keeps things cooking until you've simply had enough. How long that will take depends on your propensity for thematic free association.
Charlie Kaufman's often hilarious, always bizarre script makes sense only in fragments, and the viewer is left to construct a narrative of sorts out of the disjointed shards.
The only way to convey the lunacy of what goes on here is to write it out, then ponder why these particular steps have been taken by Jonze and company. Here's a "plot synopsis" (the phrase seems wholly inadequate in this case), but don't expect something as old-fashioned as logic while you're reading it. You'll only be disappointed.
The wildly bouncing ball
Craig Schwartz (Cusack) is a talented puppeteer who feels he's never been given a real shot at the big time. Craig's frumpy wife Lotte (Diaz) can't communicate with her morbidly depressed husband, so she spends most of her free time ministering to her pets. They include an annoying talking parrot and a chimpanzee that suffers from an acute ulcer.
Desperate for money, Craig signs on to work for LesterCorp, a company of unclear purposes with headquarters on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. You have to pry open the elevator doors between floors to get to LesterCorp, and its employees walk bent over to avoid slamming their heads against the low ceiling.
Craig's boss (Orson Bean) insists that he has an embarrassing speech impediment, but Craig can clearly understand everything that comes out of his mouth. The boss's possibly dyslexic secretary (Mary Kay Place) calls Craig "Juarez," even though he repeatedly tells her that his name is "Schwartz." She doesn't seem to care, and even mocks Craig when he tries to correct her.
It's not long before Craig finds himself falling for his sexy, terminally amused co-worker, Maxine (Keener). Maxine's cerebral deck also seems to have been reshuffled somewhere along the line, to decidedly unfocused effect. She accuses Craig of coming on to her when they're simply chatting during a break, laughs inappropriately, and humiliates him for the sheer sport of it. She can't seem to understand that Craig is falling in love with her. But an unhinged lack of comprehension is par for the course at LesterCorp.
Maxine, like everyone else in the office, doesn't mind spending her days hunched over beneath a five-foot ceiling.
Then things get weird.
Still bouncing, keep following
One day, Craig discovers a small tunnel hidden behind a filing cabinet. When he climbs in, he slides down a long pathway and finds himself coming to rest inside the consciousness of noted film actor John Malkovich (played with admirable self-deprecation by Malkovich himself).
Craig is actually a part of Malkovich, seeing the world through the actor's eyes. Craig has no control over the experience the first few times he tries it. He just takes the ride, then suddenly finds himself tumbling to the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike when it's all over.
When he tells Maxine about his adventure, she gives it a go and decides they can make a buck off the Malkovich "portal." So Craig and Maxine become business partners, selling 15-minute rides at $200 a pop. People start lining up.
After dwelling in Malkovich's body, Lotte becomes convinced that she's actually a transsexual. Like her husband, she's now in love with Maxine, and the two compete for Maxine's affections. But Maxine only wants to have sex with Lotte while Lotte is inhabiting Malkovich.
So Lotte enters Malkovich and "convinces" him to start dating Maxine. That way the two women, one of whom is a committed heterosexual, can have sex with each other by using Malkovich's male body as a conduit of the female spirit.
Malkovich eventually catches on that he's being colonized by the thoughts of complete strangers, and that Maxine has something to do with it. So he turns to his best friend for support. The friend is Charlie Sheen (played by Charlie Sheen, oddly enough). Sheen, as you might expect, is no help at all, although he likes the idea that Malkovich might be dating "a hot lesbian witch."
What can this mean?
Jonze has guts, that's for sure. But what exactly is he up to? It's probably important that the Malkovich voyages last for 15 minutes apiece. Andy Warhol famously posited that in the future everyone will be famous for that period of time, and one of the unspoken jokes here is that the customers who enter the actor often experience the most humdrum situations imaginable. Malkovich showers, orders bath towels over the telephone, and reads a script into a tape recorder, among other things.
It's a case of "the grass is always greener," except that Jonze thinks we're all too caught up in the cult of celebrity to notice that everybody's grass is interchangeable.
The gender-bending is another can of worms. The question seems to be, are we having sex with a body or a spirit when we couple with loved ones? And if we are communing with a spirit, why does it matter what the body looks like, or how it functions? Male, female, a female controlling the libido of John Malkovich. Again, it's all the same. Or it's all different from what we've previously imagined it to be, depending on how you want to look at it.
That's the fun of the movie -- it all depends on how you want to look at it.
Then there's the most obvious question: Why John Malkovich of all people? The best answer to that one is either "because" or "because he was the only big-name actor who would do it."
Cusack invests Craig with real heart; his puppet shows, although violent and absurdly erotic at times, are quite tender. He's not just yanking strings; he seems to be living the lives of his characters.
Keener is especially entertaining; her wide-eyed stare and flip good humor are the most peculiar characteristics displayed by any of the cast members. She also has never looked better, which helps a great deal when you're supposed to be the object of desire and Diaz is playing the sexually frustrated loser.
Diaz gets the job done with little flair or inspiration, but that's how she plays everything. Tangled hair and no makeup takes the place of acting.
The most amazing thing about all this is that a studio agreed to release it. (Single Cell Pictures, Gramercy Pictures and Propaganda Films produced the film, with USA films handling American distribution.) On the surface, the film seems guaranteed to play one theater in the West Village for two weeks, then garner a cult following when it's released on video.
Jonze, however, is an entertainer. For every illogical allusion, you get a deftly timed pratfall or an opportunity to see a respected actor like Malkovich make a total fool of himself. You've never seen anything quite like this, and in all probability never will again. Watch it and scratch your head.
"Being John Malkovich" contains bad language and a few rather graphic sex scenes. Look for a split-second cameo by Brad Pitt. Jonze is a famous music-video director, but this looks like a real film instead of a flashy effects reel. Good for him. Rated R. 112 minutes.
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