The 1960's surrealist comedy troupe THE FIRESIGN THEATRE was prescient about so many things -- interactive television, animatronic robots, cars with video screens. Yet one thing I never thought we'd see is the "coveted Good Sport Award for Excellence in Hollywood" referred to in the classic DON'T CRUSH THAT DWARF, HAND ME THE PLIERS album. Yet it looks as if we may yet see such an award, and if we do, its first recipient is likely to be John Malkovich, for his willingness to play himself channeling John Cusack and Cameron Diaz in Spike Jonze's promising, if bizarre, directorial debut, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.
1999 has had its share of memorable film finishes eXistenZ, THE SIXTH SENSE, a few others. Yet nothing has come close to the originality of first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, the sheer zaniness and perversity of first-time feature director Spike Jonze, the complete casting inversions of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.
John Cusack, looking like the Yoko-era John Lennon on a particularly bad day, is Craig Schwartz, an unemployed puppeteer who laments the lack of opportunities in puppetry "in today's wintry economic climate." He cannot understand why there is no market for a puppetry genius who conducts performances of Abelard and Heloïse on street corners. He lives with his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz, disguised with a mousy brown perm and brown contact lenses so that she resembles Melinda Dillon in A CHRISTMAS STORY), a pet-store owner, in an apartment full of animals -- a cockatiel that acts as an alarm clock, a dog, a ferret, a chimpanzee with psychological problems, and those are only the pets we see.
At Lottie's urging, he finds a "day job" as a file clerk at the Lester Corp., on the 7-1/2th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building, where he becomes infatuated with Maxine (Catherine Keener, in the Linda Fiorentino role). Maxine, alas, does not reciprocate his interest until he discovers a mysterious tunnel behind a file cabinet, which turns out to be a portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich.
For fifteen minutes, the "visitor" sees the world through John Malkovich's eyes, and is them dumped out by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike (apparently in Elizabeth, NJ, thus answering the burning question that tormented my spouse for days prior to viewing the film). The discovery of this portal piques Maxine's interest, though only as Craig's business partner in the selling of the portal as a theme ride, not as a lust object.
The film is fraught with the kind of wacky, jokey visuals and one-liners one would expect from the director of that bizarre Levi's ad in which a group of doctors stand around a patient singing Soft Cell's Tainted Love. The 7-1/2th floor of the office building in which Craig works is literally a half-floor high, and tall people must stoop over -- an ongoing joke. Mr. Lester (Orson Bean), the lecherous company owner who talks about sex like a romance novel writer, believes he has a speech impediment because his lust object and secretary, Floris (Mary Kay Place) is, unbeknownst to him, hard of hearing. When in John Malkovich's brain, the sound of the actor eating toast reverberates off the apparent walls of his skull. Malkovich's persona as an easily recognizable movie figure whose filmography seems unknown to anyone is constantly parodied. The sight of people falling onto the weed grasses of the industrial heart of New Jersey remains funny, even after the fifth fall. And when Malkovich takes the portal into his own brain, it causes a truly nightmarish recursive program call.
Of particular note are the truly extraordinary puppetry sequences of Phil Huber. The facial expressions on the puppets are fascinatingly human. The film opens with a multijointed puppet on a fully furnished set, doing a dance in which it looks almost human. Note this dance, because it becomes important. The film's official site insists that these sequences were not digitally enhanced. If this is the case, than perhaps Craig Schwartz is right, that puppetry is an underappreciated art.
The film is largely carried by the terrific performances of its seemingly miscast cast. John Cusack takes a while to put aside his Cusack-ness and disappear into the tortured brain of a frustrated puppeteer, yet disappear he does. Cusack is an enormously appealing actor who could fall back on boyish charm at any time (à la Matthew Broderick), but chooses instead to push the envelope with every performance. Here, he inhabits Craig completely, right down to the defeated shlumpiness of his gait. Yet still, his intelligence and the influence of having worked twice with Woody Allen shows through in lines such as "Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?"
Cameron Diaz, one of the current parade of ex-model lookalike Hollywood blondes, is a revelation in this film. Looking less homely than also defeated, she is beginning to show a real flair for choosing interesting, edgy, complex roles. Her Lottie, seemingly trapped in a loveless marriage with Cusack's complete loser, is hardly a victim. It appears that this particular blonde can act after all.
Catherine Keener, who seems to be the fourth for bridge in the Pantheon of Indie Flick Stalwart Actresses, alongside Lili Taylor, Parker Posey, and Chloë Sevigny, essentially reprises Linda Fiorentino's performance in anything. Supremely confident, but with ice water in her veins, her Maxine is the consummate opportunist.
What can I say about John Malkovich? One has to wonder what ever possessed him to do this film, other than the fact that he really had no choice. The movie was never going to be called BEING MICHAEL KEATON. And yet, it can't be easy for an actor who historically has appeared to take himself oh-so-seriously to resort to this degree of self-parody. But he also has the opportunity to act, particularly when Craig takes over his consciousness and he emulates Cusack's speech quirks perfectly, even through his own prissy, enunciated Malkovichian tones. Clearly, these two became good friends on the set of CON AIR, because Cusack's "possession" of his co-star from that film is complete.
Director Jonze concocts a film that explores issues of gender identity, sexual orientation and attraction, marriage, celebrity, our working life, and about what makes us who we are. This is a fair amount of territory to cover in any film, let alone a comedy, and let alone a comedy by a first-time director known primarily for music videos. In the end, this is what makes the film ultimately so frustrating. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is so brilliant where it works, that as it begins to unravel towards the end, the unraveling is doubly apparent. I had wanted to be blown away by this film. This is the movie for which I had waited all year, and perhaps nothing could have lived up to my expectations. Yet once Craig discovers that he can make John Malkovich just another of his puppets the film falls curiously flat and becomes somewhat draggy. Jonze seems to feel obligated to explain all the unresolved issues of the film in its last half-hour, whereas by leaving these questions open, Jonze's first effort could have been the movie most talked about in coffee bars and newsgroups since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. As it is, the inevitable wrapping up of the loose ends gives an otherwise brilliantly original film a Hollywood obviousness that seems incongruous.
This is only a minor quibble, however, because BEING JOHN MALKOVICH works on so many levels -- as a comedy, as a psychological exploration, and as an example of kind of dazzlingly original filmmaking that many of us had thought no longer existed outside of Terry Gilliam's brain (now there would be an interesting theme ride). Why USA films opened this film in only limited release over Halloween weekend is a mystery, not just because of the obvious references to role playing and masks, but also because the Oscar buzz in advance of this film is as deafening as the crunching of toast reverberating in Malkovich's head.