Movie Review By Casey McCabe
This is a film about an unhappy puppeteer who discovers a secret door behind a file cabinet that allows people to enter, for roughly 15 minutes, the mind and body of actor John Malkovich.
I know. Haven't we seen this all before?
Seriously, there is a lot to be said for "Being John Malkovich." And I will say up front that it is indeed a "must-see" movie, whether you like it or not. If you are the least bit curious, you should see it. Let no words convince you otherwise. If you are not curious, more's the pity. If you don't know who he is, or have never especially liked John Malkovich, that doesn't necessarily mitigate the experience. Frankly, the marionette scenes alone are worth the price of admission. Am I dancing around this in order to avoid further explaining the film? Well....yes. But consider it a favor. "Being John Malkovich" exists to defy explanations, expectations, logic and gravity. And what it has to say about filmmaking is perhaps more interesting than any message the film is trying to deliver.
There's long been a buzz about "Being John Malkovich," and it's become something of a parlor game among industry watchers. What was the screenwriter thinking when he chose to pursue this of all concepts? How on Earth did he sell it to a studio? Who in the world did they expect would pay to see it? And....uh....what exactly is the point again?
That the finished film doesn't fully answer these questions is, I believe, something of a compliment. It suggests that it may indeed be that rarest of things in the business, a full-fledged artistic gamble. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, according to most reports, is a genuine curiosity, writing the spec screenplay without the knowledge, much less the commitment of John Malkovich. How much different a film titled "Being Tony Danza" might be, we'll never know. That he managed to get Malkovich, director Spike Jonze, the studio money handlers and the impressive stable of actors to share his aggressively peculiar vision is nothing short of a miracle.
The film itself? Not a miracle, but it is a wonder in every sense of the word. A terrifically funny and often giddy experience. The only catch comes late in the film when, after having successfully blown away conventional expectations, it attempts to explain itself by punishing its characters. And here, the black comedy becomes something of a black hole. The giddiness it had inspired succumbs to the point it wants to make, an interesting if debatable take on sublimated identities; that as illuminating as it may be to see life through someone else's eyes, the temptation is to impose your will through someone else's body.
John Malkovich is frighteningly convincing in the role of John Malkovich. Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen and in an amusingly brief cameo, Brad Pitt all play themselves. For that matter, John Cusak playing the cynical artiste who doth protest too much, seems very well grounded in John Cusak the actor. Leaving only a frail, dowdy, almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz as one of the few actors entirely in the film's world, and in an outstanding performance she carries much of its considerable weight.
Whether it turns out to be a benchmark a wake-up call or merely a harmless curiosity, we should be grateful for both the effort and the journey. It's easier Saving Private Ryan than Being John Malkovich. And it's nice to be reminded of that every now and then.
© 1999 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/10/99
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