Being John Malkovich
Being John Malcovich USA, 1999.  Rated R.  112 minutes.

Cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen, W. Earl Brown; cameos by Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, David Fincher
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Music: Carter Burwell
Cinematographer: Lance Acord
Producers: Steve Golin, Sandy Stern, Michael Stipe
Director: Spike Jonze

Grade: A- Review by Dana Knowles

B eing John Malkovich is a trippy, goofball romp through the imagination of neophyte screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and what a delightful imagination it is! John CusackThe premise is too bizarre to explain adequately without revealing too much, but here's the basic rundown: Craig Schwartz (Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer, happily married to the dowdy Lotte (an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), a pet store worker who urges Craig to find a regular job. He does so, landing a gig as a file clerk at an odd corporation located between two floors of a high-rise office building. Craig discovers a small door in the file room one day and crawls through it. As you might expect, it turns out to be a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. And from there... things get a bit strange! Craig shares his secret discovery with a coworker he covets (Catherine Keener), and they agree to rent access to the portal to the public for $200 a pop. Regardless of what you may or may not presume will come of this decision, the odds that you'll correctly anticipate the next step in the saga are slim to none. And I ain't tellin', either. Nobody wrecked my fun, and I'm not going to wreck yours!Catherine Keener

Kaufman's brilliant script is more than ably abetted by the uniformly marvelous performances of a great ensemble cast, the titular John Malkovich being of particular note, running the gamut from deadpan befuddlement to fearless exhibitionism to endearing self-mockery. If he's not nominated for something... it will be a crime against art! Cusack is grungy and pathetic. Diaz is frumpy and sweet. Keener is sexy and captivating. Orson Bean is creepy and funny without ever slipping into cutsie-old-coot territory. Mary Kay Place is hilarious in a few brief moments. And the bit players and star cameos are spot-on perfect with their small--but crucial--contributions. It's difficult to find words sufficient to praise the work of these performers. They're all on the same page with some very, very difficult material, and anything less from the cast as a whole would have diminished the film's impact immeasurably. Serious kudos are in order!

The Big Picture

Spike Jonze directs with little or no visual flair, which is a perfect choice in terms of the film's tone. Imagine a Terry Gilliam film without the wild camera work or the eye-popping art direction, and you've got the basic idea. Jonze presents this absurd tale and these absurd people with an utterly straight face. Anything else would have overwhelmed and underlined the material too severly to allow it to work its magic, so it's to Jonze's great credit that he held back and let the script and the actors take the spotlight. If I have any criticism at all, it would be with regard to the inexplicable murkiness of so many of the shots. While I admired the visual restraint, I was sometimes distracted by the fact that a significant number of shots seem to be needlessly underlit... an effect that adds nothing to the atmosphere or tone, but instead made me wonder just how small the budget for this production actually was. Still, it's a quibble more than a grave complaint, particularly in view of the many ways that Jonze chose perfectly. But it does account for the "minus" attached to my grade.

This is the sort of film that would be a delight to analyze, but is not terribly fun to review. Its magnificence is in its capacity to surprise. And to heap further surprise on that surprise. And to keep surprising until it fades to black and the lights come up. What a feat that is! And what a treat to experience, especially for those of us who sometimes fear that there's nothing original left to find on a movie screen. In addition to the wacky fun that abounds from frame to frame, Being John Malkovich is stuffed full of interesting ideas about identity, celebrity, age, gender, life, death, love, sexuality, manipulation, personal aspirations, artistic expression, and (especially!) control. It's a kick to have such tremendous fun at a movie and then discover that you've been given so much food for thought as a bonus. This one's a definite keeper!

Review © November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 by Gramercy Pictures. All rights reserved.