Being John Malkovich, a new film directed by Spike Jonze
(recently seen in Three Kings) and produced in part by
Michael Stipe of REM fame, is by far one of the freshest, funniest, and most
satirical films released this year. Never dumbing itself down to the studio
executive mentality, Being is a film that takes dozens of risks and
succeeds with almost all of them. It manages to be simultaneously entertaining
and thought-provoking, and always has a new surprise for the viewer.
The plot is deceptively simple, if bizarre. Craig Schwartz (John
Cusack), a puppeteer who can’t find work in this "wintry economical
climate," decides to use his fast fingers to get a job at a filing company.
Located on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building, Schwartz spends his days
filing and his nights at home with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). But all that
changes the day he discovers a tiny portal in his office – a portal that sends
you into John Malkovich’s mind for 15 minutes. Once it’s over, you’re dumped out
onto a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.
One typically amusing moment of the film occurs when Schwartz
describes the experience to Maxine (Catherine Keener), a co-worker he hopes to
impress. Essentially summarizing the premise of the film, Schwartz ends with the
statement, "I don’t know how I can go on living my life the same way with
this knowledge." Without missing a beat, the uninterested Maxine offers him
her open window, then leaves the office.
The rest of the film follows the premise logically to whatever
conclusion it can, however bizarre, from realizations of transgenderism to the
financial exploitation of Malkovich’s portal and even the permanent acquisition
of the actor’s mind. The film keeps the audience constantly confused as to who
the protagonist is – is it the tortured, megalomaniacal Schwartz, the
newly-awakened Lotte, the self-serving Maxine or poor Malkovich himself? Or
could it even be the kindly, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), Schwartz’s sex-obsessed,
105-year-old boss? There are no easy answers, and the focus shifts so constantly
that even by the end, one can’t be entirely sure whose story we just watched –
The performances are excellent, especially given the bizarre
material; Cusack and Diaz are nearly unrecognizable in their frumpy clothing and
down-to-earth make-up jobs, their appearances downplayed so the audience won’t
be distracted and Malkovich won’t be upstaged by these admittedly bigger-name
stars. Malkovich himself, playing a grotesque of the persona he portrays in his
better-known films, particularly In the Line of Fire, is just the type of
critically-acclaimed, publicly misunderstood actor the films needs. Keener gives
her Maxine the perfect note of the bitchy beautiful girl, but even she’s given
the chance to show a more tender side.
Charlie Kaufman’s script is outstanding, and the film delivers
as many laughs as dramatic and even disturbing moments. Being John Malkovich
a exceedingly clever, fresh, and funny, and though it’s playing in a rather
limited release, I urge you to see it as soon as you can – even if that’s on
video. The film’s premise is even a metaphor for the film itself – but instead
of 15 minutes, you get to spend two hours inside the head of Kaufman, Jonz, and
the actors themselves.