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Being John Malkovich

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Being John Malkovich

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz
Director: Spike Jonze
Rated: R
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: October 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama


*Also starring: John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, W. Earl Brown, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen, Spike Jonze



Review by Walter Frith
2½ stars out of 4

If you think you've seen it all in Hollywood, you haven't. If you think you've seen it all in every actor who ever played himself, you haven't. If you think you'll be in for quite a surprise with 'Being John Malkovich', you will. This is one of the most bizarre and weirdly obtuse films that disappointed me at times while it delighted and intrigued me at other points during its running time. It almost looks like the paradox found in a Terry Gilliam film with a profound sense of visual attraction while putting forward the dark side of human personality.

Set in New York City in the present day, the story concerns itself with a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). He is the type who works odd jobs displaying his art and doesn't have a steady job. He sleeps late and lives with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) who works at a pet store. Their apartment is flooded with animals. The dogs, cats and chimps roam around freely and they have many other animals around for companionship. Craig takes a job working in a most unique place. An office building has a floor that doesn't show up on the elevator's button because following the number is 1/2. How can you have 1/2 a floor? The floor is only about 4 to 5 feet high. Everyone walks hunched over. The doors are all miniature size and the office furniture fits just fine as do the employees, as long as they're sitting down. Craig's job will be that of a file clerk. Since he is a puppeteer, he has fast fingers and it shows when he's given a test to perform. He's hired. He meets the office tramp, Maxine (Catherine Keener), who is a foul woman with a witch like personality. There is a strange sexual attraction between the two of them which dominates parts of the film.

THE PLOT THICKENS. Craig is working one day when he drops a file folder behind the filing cabinet. Don't you hate that?! He must move the entire cabinet out to get the folder. After sliding the cabinet away from the wall, he notices a board covering something up. Curiosity killed the cat as they say. After removing the board, there is an old door that seems to have been abandoned. Upon opening it and crawling inside, Craig is sucked into its chamber and looks through the eyes of actor John Malkovich. The door turned out to be a portal into the back of his head. Bizarre! The only catch is that just when this experience is getting really exciting (it only lasts 15 minutes), your body is dispensed from its place and you fall out on to the New Jersey turnpike. BIZARRE! Yes, this is all true.

If it sounds silly and unbelievable, that's the point. The film drives a wedge between the boundaries of convincing fantasy and magnifying stupidity. This is all done with the feeling of inhaling laughing gas. Needless to say that actor John Malkovich finds out what is happening and tries to stop it. You see, Craig and Maxine have started a business where people can enter the portal for 15 minutes and pay $200 for the experience of being someone else. Through it all is an explanation provided by the office boss (Orson Bean) of how the portal works and how people can become transferred from its perception or be imprisoned by its black hole like draw on human beings.

John Cusack is quite an actor. He said for years he wanted to avoid the trappings of a career enjoyed by people like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford. It other words, super stardom. He, like Nicolas Cage in the early days of his career, has instead opted for the quirky roles in Hollywood. The off beat stuff and doing a convincing job in any role he chooses to play. He is one of the best actors in the business without many people knowing it and I'm sure that drawing attention away from himself is exactly the way Cusack likes it.

The two key female performances in the film are 180 degrees apart. Cameron Diaz is sweet and innocent. Sort of the naive victim of the whole thing before her fate is revealed at the end. Catherine Keener is just the opposite. As mentioned above, her portrayal of Maxine is that of a foul woman with a witch like personality. You know her character is just the sort of enigma that will come away without so much as a scratch. Oscar nominations will be fourth coming but the film will suffer in the truly high profile categories such as best picture. While on many "ten best" lists for 1999, the film has a tailor made look of trying too hard to look original like 1998's 'The Truman Show' did. Both films share the concept of character confinement before the truth is revealed but both show how the human experience can be dream like in nature and while 'Being John Malkovich' is a good film with things not seen before, it still seems a bit aloof in the way its resolution comes down but it will be regarded as GREAT film making only by the most hard core of fans who like fantasy films.

OUT OF 5 > * * * 1/2

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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