BEING JOHN MALKOVICH – Blu-ray review

The following is a review of Criterion’s May 2012 Blu-ray release of “Being John Malkovich.”  The main body of the review was written by John Puccio for the 2000 SD release by Polygram USA.  Christopher Long chimes in with some brief thoughts about the film and then writes the Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value sections.

THE FILM ACCORDING TO JOHN:

When the title says “Being John Malkovich,” it doesn’t mean being LIKE John Malkovich or even learning to understand him better. It means really BEING the actor. The film takes the old saying about “getting into a person’s head” literally and develops a wonderfully imaginative, oddball premise where movie characters actually go into Malkovich’s brain and look out of his eyes. Although it’s basically a one-note picture, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze play up every angle they can think of to produce one of 1999’s more amusing and creative efforts.

John Cusack stars as Craig Schwartz, an out-of-work puppeteer who fantasizes through his wooden creations. He loves the idea of becoming someone else, as who wouldn’t in his situation, living a drab, dingy life in a drab, dingy apartment with a drab, dingy wife. Going against type, the dowdy wife is played by Cameron Diaz. They share their apartment with a dog, a chimpanzee, and a talking parrot. When the wife convinces Schwartz to look for a real job, he applies for work as a filing clerk at LesterCorp, a business firm located on the 7 ½ floor of an old office building. Why 7 ½? Like everything else in the film, just because. Because it’s goofy. Because it’s only half height and everybody has to stoop over. Because there’s nothing about the story that isn’t purposely bizarre. Because it’s business and a lower ceiling means lower overhead.

In any case, he’s not on the job long before he discovers a strange door, a portal, hidden behind a filing cabinet. Where it leads is straight into John Malkovich’s head. After fifteen minutes of seeing and hearing what Malkovich sees and hears, Schwartz is thrown out in a ditch next to the New Jersey turnpike.

This is a comedy in the off kilter tradition of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam. All of the characters are eccentric oddballs, and the situations they get into are antic and far-fetched. But, surprisingly, it all hangs together. Schwartz can’t wait to tell somebody about his new discovery, and the person he goes to is a pretty coworker he’s fallen for named Maxine (Catherine Keener). Maxine can see only profit in the development and suggests they sell tickets. They place an ad in the paper offering readers the chance to spend fifteen minutes inside John Malkovich for only $200 a pop. Wonderfully silly stuff, filled with people and places right out of “Alice in Wonderland.”

But complications arise when Schwartz’s wife takes the trip, likes the idea of being a man, and then falls in love with Maxine. Maxine, on the other hand, only likes the wife when the wife is inside Malkovich’s head; and Maxine can’t stand poor old Craig, who’s left out in the cold. Anyway, people are soon lined up to get inside Malkovich, and Malkovich, being a bright guy, quickly figures out what’s going on; it’s his head, after all. The funniest scene in the film is when Malkovich insists on going into his own mind and taking his own ego trip. In desperation, Schwartz decides to invade Malkovich’s brain and reside there permanently, manipulating him like one of his puppets. Once there, he becomes the new John Malkovich and turns the actor into what Schwartz always wanted to be, a world-famous puppeteer. And so it goes.

The film gets more exaggerated and more grotesque as it moves along, ending in a wild ride through Malkovich’s subconscious. In spite of the freakish nature of the subject matter, the sometimes leisurely pace, and the dim, often bleak tone, the film is inventive enough to maintain interest throughout; and it’s helped enormously by the enthusiasm of the cast. Cusack is ceaselessly bemused, frantic, and close to homicidal by the story’s end. Diaz acts as air-headed as she looks in the role, about as far removed from “Mary” as she could get. Keener is appropriately sneaky and scheming. Seasoned comic Orson Bean plays Schwartz’s boss, Dr. Lester, as a kind of fuzzy-brained Leslie Nielson. Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn appear in cameos as themselves, Sheen parodying his own womanizing lifestyle. Which leaves Malkovich himself. He’s hilarious and appears to be having a ball in the part.

As for morals, messages, or themes in the film, I suppose one could see quite a lot in the metaphors of people wanting to be somebody else, questioning their own identity, exploiting others, and looking into themselves to see what’s really there. But I wouldn’t do it. The movie is more fun taken alone, an appealing fantasy in a world apart.

THE FILM ACCORDING TO CHRIS:

I loved “Being John Malkovich” when I first saw it in theaters.  I was just getting heavily into “weird” movies, and this sure as heck qualified.  In the ensuing 13 years (really?  Wow!) my enthusiasm has cooled significantly.  Today, my appreciation centers mostly on the fact that John Malkovich actually agreed to participate in the film in the first place.  One day he was handed a script called “Being John Malkovich” in which his character is portrayed in an unflattering light and then horribly violated.  Repeatedly.  He was so enamored of the script, however, that he agreed to play the role he was bred for.

I find the film too smug and precious now to embrace it as I once did, but I admire its verve.  It’s one heck of an innovative script, even if its brilliant ideas don’t translate that well to the screen.  Still, it’s a movie that makes an impression, regardless of whether you’re positively or negatively inclined towards it.  And who knows?  Maybe if I revisit it in another 13 years, I’ll fall in love with it again.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  This 1080p transfer doesn’t have the kind of razor sharp image detail you would expect, but that might be from the source material itself.  It’s difficult to tell.  The color palette is rather muted throughout, but if you’re wondering if it’s a little too washed out, director Spike Jonze writes in the insert booklet, “Will you do me a favor?  Can I come sleep over at your house tonight?  I can tell you about how the color on this release matches what our original print looked like, and how we were never able to get that when we put out the DVD before.”  Still, the overall picture quality is very strong even if it doesn’t “pop” like the best high-def transfers.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very dynamic and presents both the film’s sometimes surreal audio effects as well as the nifty score by Carter Burwell quite vividly.  The dialogue is sharp and clearly mixed throughout.  Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
In keeping with the tone of the film, Criterion has prepared a playful, evasive collection of extras in which one gets the sense that just about everyone is hiding behind a mask of some kind.

Instead of a typical feature-length director’s commentary, Criterion has recorded a selected scene commentary by Spike Jonze’s “friend and competitor the director Michel Gondry.”  Gondry, you see, was tricked into this commentary which was also supposed to be full-length but had to be “abridged for reasons of accuracy, audience interest, and legal liability.”  This runs about 58 minutes and can be selected on the Supplements menu.

“All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set” (33 min) is a documentary directed by Lance Bangs which captures the “atmosphere” on set, particularly on the cramped set of the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building.  I found it a little too cloying and bailed after about ten minutes.

“Spike’s Photos” (15 min) is another featurette directed by Bangs in which Jonze, prepping for the 30th anniversary edition of the film which will be played on a chip planted directly into your head and viewed in one and a half seconds, talks about several still photos he took on set.

In a mild surprise, the most straight-up feature on the disc is an interview of John Malkovich conducted by comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent John Hodgman.  Recorded in Brooklyn in November 2011 for Criterion, this top-notch interview allows Malkovich to relate the terminally weird story of being handed a script called “Being John Malkovich” and how he eventually decided to participate in the terminally weird project.  28 minutes.

The disc also includes two of the films within the film: the “7 ½ Floor Orientation” video that Craig watches at work (2 min.) and the triumphant TV special “American Arts and Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” (4 min) which relates Malkovich’s amazing transformation from actor to puppeteer.

“An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering” (7 min.) is pretty much what it says it is.  The disc also includes four of the very evocative and enigmatic TV spots (each running from 18 sec to 34 sec) that helped build up quite a buzz around the film.  We also get a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)  This, as well as the two “films within the film” were also included on the 2000 SD release.

The insert booklet includes an “interview” between an exasperated Spike Jonze and a verbose “pop culture critic” named Perkus Tooth.

Film Value:
I’m a little turned off by the glib presentation of this set, but I understand what they were going for.  Where I once loved “Being John Malkovich,” I now merely find it “interesting” which is always a questionable descriptor to use.  Regardless, fans will enjoy the new extras Criterion has included will appeal to fans tuned in to the film’s vibe.

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