Being John Malkovich

If one is to believe everything they see, then somewhere in a New York building on the 7½ floor is an office that has a small passageway into the mind of actor John Malkovich. Those who enter the passageway find themselves inside Malkovich for fifteen minutes before they are deposited on the shoulder of the New Jersey turnpike.


beingjohnmalkovich2Of course you can’t always believe everything you see, but that shouldn’t stop you from having a good time watching “Being John Malkovich.” The brainchild of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, “Being John Malkovich” is decidedly one of the most unexpected delights you will experience at the movies this year.

I would have given anything to be the fly on the wall when the filmmakers pitched the film to prospective producers. “Being John Malkovich” is the kind of edgy material that producers claim they want to make, but instead spend $100 million to blow stuff up.

Nothing gets blown up in “Being John Malkovich” except the ego of puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), whose brilliant work goes unnoticed on the streets of Manhattan. Desperate to provide for his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and their menagerie of animal children, Craig agrees to get a real job.

His search leads him to the 7 « floor of an office building, where he is hired as a filer. Retrieving a folder from behind a cabinet, Craig discovers a small portal. Curious where it leads, Craig investigates, and without warning, finds himself inside the mind of Malkovich. Before he can comprehend his situation, Craig is deposited on the turnpike shoulder.

As reaffirmation that he is not crazy, Craig allows Lotte to go through the portal. When he picks her up at the other end, Lotte claims that her life has been changed. She now believes that she is a man trapped inside the body of a woman. Whatever.

Craig turns to beautiful co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) for advice, and together they decide to sell tickets to people with a desire to be John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. Much to the dismay of Malkovich, his brain becomes a popular attraction. He’s really not aware of the situation until Craig begins using Malkovich’s body to seduce Maxine.

There’s great conceit in Kaufman’s screenplay. You wonder if he approached Malkovich before or after he came up with the idea and wrote the script. Kaufman’s script deals with weighty issues, yet his dialogue is never heavy handed.

Malkovich is such a perfect vessel for the story. His ability to play deranged or quirky characters is perfect fodder for such nonsense. Are the voices in his head actually tourists enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame?

Malkovich is a good sport not only to put up with all of this, but to actually become part of it. He’s awfully funny as himself, and is hilarious when he becomes a puppet in Craig’s hands.

Jonze, a former music video director, does a splendid job of making extraordinary situations seem normal and everyday. Kaufman’s plot is really out there, yet Jonze reels it in without sacrificing any of the script’s delightfully offbeat moments. He makes it easy for us to accept and believe everything that we see.

He also gets uncommonly good performances from the cast, especially a frumpy Cameron Diaz, totally lost behind a dirty brunette wig and brown contact lens. Jonze understands that Diaz doesn’t have to be overly pretty to be funny, and helps the actress peel back the layers to expose a character of depth and desire.

John Cusack is earnest as the puppeteer whose jealousy gets the best of him. His desperation sets the stage for some of the films most unexpected moments. Cusack invests himself body and soul into these moments. His motivations are clear.

The real surprise of “Being John Malkovich” is the stunning Catherine Keener. Keener is always interesting to watch. Her performance in “Your Friends & Neighbors” was so honest and refreshing. She’s equally honest in her portrayal of Maxine, a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to make it happen. When Maxine turns her charm on Malkovich, you know he is helpless.

Every time you believe you have the film pegged, the filmmakers prove you wrong. The great Orson Bean plays the business owner who not only knows about the portal, but has special plans for it. Mary Kay Place is a delight as his executive assistant, a former speech therapist who can’t understand a word anyone says.

I can’t imagine “Being John Malkovich” cost much. The set-up and sets appear economical. The strength of this dark comedy lies in the characters and dialogue. Jonze resists the temptation to make the film a full-blown mind trip. Instead, he allows the actors to blow our minds, and they do an excellent job.

“Being John Malkovich” is rich in humor and in-jokes. How delightful to see Charlie Sheen aping himself, with Sean Penn delivering a scathingly funny diatribe about Malkovich’s new found success as a master puppeteer.

Not everyone will appreciate the effort, but those looking for something adventurous and off the beaten path will be pleasantly surprised by this little side trip into the mind of one of America’s most respected actors.

“MALKOVICH” HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich in a film directed by Spike Jonze. Rated R. 100 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $8



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