Being John Malkovich
Directed by Spike Jonze. Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place. (1999, R, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 5, 1999
Rarely is there a movie about which you can honestly say that it's like nothing you've ever seen before. Being John Malkovich is one such movie -- a wildly inventive, unrelenting thrill that amazes us with its visual and intellectual treats and dazzles us with its ongoing ingenuity. That this is the first feature film by Spike Jonze only adds to its luster, although anyone familiar with Jonze's imaginative commercial work for such advertisers as Nike and Nissan will not be altogether surprised. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, however, is also a first-timer, and though it might be natural to wonder from what inner sanctums this writer channeled his story's ideas, it's probably best to just sit back and enjoy the result. Cusack plays a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz whose bawdy street performances manage to keep him permanently unemployed in his chosen profession. At home he is surrounded by a menagerie of animals, which his wife Lotte (Diaz) brings home from her job. Craig's nimble fingers get him a job as a file clerk in a strange company on the 7 1/2 floor, whose boss (Bean) is 105 years old. Soon Craig discovers a portal behind a file cabinet that swooshes him inside John Malkovich's brain, where he remains for 15 minutes before being dropped unceremoniously alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. At work, the devastatingly alluring but curt Maxine (Keener), whom Craig lusts after, figures out a way to sell tickets to Malkovich's brain and profit from the oddity. Then Lotte takes the ride and discovers that she's a transsexual or a lesbian and she and Maxine are setting up tête-à-têtes inside John Malkovich. It all sounds mad but, trust me, it works -- except, I think, for the concluding subplot, which pushes the film's realism further than it can stand. For this may be what is most amazing, ultimately, about this movie: It incorporates a bizarre unreality within its strictly realistic narrative and visual structure. It stimulates mental gymnastics that excite the soul as our brains scramble to incorporate all the movie's polarities while our gut intuitively responds like a zoom lens at an amusement park. All the actors seem to have found a freedom here to go places their careers have never taken them before. Both Cusack and Diaz look unlike any character they've played before; it could be a while before you even recognize Diaz as the frizzed-out, dowdy Lotte. Malkovich seizes this plum role for all it's worth. And Keener, a longtime darling of indie filmmaking (Your Friends & Neighbors, Living in Oblivion) is breathtaking in her perfectly controlled performance as the singular Maxine. Nothing I can say here feels like it even remotely captures the brilliance of Being John Malkovich. But like the people in the movie who line up for their 15 minutes inside the brain of the actor -- or, for that matter, inside anyone other than themselves -- the time for queuing up is now. It's really one hell of a ride.