Being John Malkovich

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

REVIEWED: 11-01-99

Would anyone shell out $200 to spend 10 minutes in John Malkovich's head? That's one of the shakier premises in Spike Jonze's effervescent and profound feature debut, Being John Malkovich, and to judge from the actor's recent track record on the screen it would seem unlikely. But Being is less about celebrity -- one of its ironies is that nobody in the movie really knows or cares who John Malkovich is -- than it is about escape. To spend 10 minutes inside somebody else's head is the allure of all art, the chance to break out of the solitary confinement of the self.

Jonze, though best known for his whiz-bang, surreal music videos and TV commercials, has a feel for the mind-forged manacles that keep the self imprisoned. Following the brilliantly byzantine screenplay by newcomer Charlie Kaufman, he gleefully unlocks the interconnected cells constructed by fantasies, jobs, ambitions, relationships, and the allure of the media, compassionately exposing those poor souls trapped inside and isolated from their own experience.

Like puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, nearly hidden, like much of the rest of the cast, beneath a hideous haircut), who's first seen as his own puppet. What appears to be a lifesize Craig marionette leaps on his master's strings in a piece called "Dance of Disillusionment and Despair" involving music from Béla Bartók and a smashed mirror. Wild applause follows, but it's all in Craig's head -- he's onanistically playing with dolls in his basement.

Meanwhile, upstairs, his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, her grin and giggle nearly buried under a mousy mop), is not faring much better. Instead of puppets, she has pets -- the ailing iguanas and apes she brings home from the pet store where she works. At least she's bringing in an income, and her quiet suggestion that Craig get a job is met with vain pronouncements about art. After being beaten up by a father outraged by the sight of Abélard and Héloïse puppets dry-humping their cell walls in one of his sidewalk performances, Craig accedes to Lotte's request and answers an ad in the paper for an "experienced file clerk of short stature."

The 7-1/2th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in Manhattan where Craig starts his new job is a cramped David Lynch-like wonderland. There he meets haughty co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener, at last playing a bitch who is sympathetic), with whom he falls hopelessly in love. By chance he also discovers a portal to John Malkovich's mind behind a file cabinet (a tiny door leads to a passage resembling a womb or an escape tunnel from Stalag 17 that sucks one into the experience of John Malkovich eating toast or ordering from a catalogue followed by expulsion onto the New Jersey Turnpike). In a desperate attempt to win over Maxine, Craig agrees to join her in a covert scheme to sell tickets to John Malkovich's mind.

That's just the beginning, of course, and things get sexually and metaphysically messy when Lotte enters the portal (she returns thinking she is a man trapped in a woman's body when she was in fact briefly a woman trapped in a man's body) and falls in love with Maxine, who falls in love with her (but "only as Malkovich"), inciting the jealous and ineffectual Craig to drastic measures in one of the most mind-boggling love quadrangles in the history of movies. And when Malkovich enters his own portal, things get really nightmarish, giving the idea of being one's own best audience an especially nasty twist.

Being's insight is that all escapes are deeper traps, and that dreams of escaping one's self-imprisonment lead to ever more diabolical confrontations with it. So why is this such a fun movie? Perhaps it's Jonze's genuine delight in the media excesses, celebrity absurdities, and pseudo-artistic pretensions he parodies, or the humane genius of, for example, casting Orson Bean as an enigmatic centenarian whose dread of the ultimate confinement of death leads to all the other confinements.

Jonze is a blithe puppeteer himself, and his canny self-referentiality is nonetheless ingenuous, though at times he gets a little too cute and frivolous for his own good -- is it necessary to include a flashback to a chimp's repressed memory? -- and the film in the later going labors somewhat with contrivance. Regardless, it's one of the most philosophically provocative screwball comedies ever made. As abstruse and bewildering as Being gets -- the questions start with what happens to the piece of wood Craig leaves behind in his first trip through the portal, and they don't end when it appears that Malkovich contains multitudes -- it can't be beat for escapist entertainment.


--Peter Keough

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