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.
In keeping with the peculiar nature of the film, USA Home Entertainment, distributors for this Universal release, have loaded the disc with peculiar, Python-like extras. Prominent among them are several pseudo-documentaries lifted directly from the film, one called “American Arts & Culture Presents: John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” and the other titled “7 ½ Floor Orientation.” Then there’s another short documentary, “An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering,” which is just what it sounds like, and a truly off-the-wall one, “An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving,” that features interviews with extras in the film who claim to have been hired to drive by on the New Jersey turnpike as people were flying out of the air. More goofiness. An interview with director Spike Jonze takes place in Jonze’s car while he fumbles around for keys and such, looking annoyed. There are also cast and crew biographies and filmographies, “Spike’s Photo Album” of stills, “A Page with Nothing on It” (truly Pythonesque), thirty-two scene selections, a booklet insert, various TV spots, and a theatrical trailer. English is the only spoken language, but English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The picture quality, in a modest 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, does little to embarrass itself. Given the murky atmosphere it conveys, the transfer stays reasonably clear and sharp most of the time and provides good viewing. I noticed nothing untoward or improper in the way of flecks, specks, fluttering lines, dancing pixels, unwanted artifacts, or the like.
Audio is provided via either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround. DD 5.1 supplied some intriguing rear-channel effects used to simulate the inside of Malkovich’s mind; don’t be surprised to hear hollow, reverberant voices coming from behind you during the head trips.
“Being John Malkovich” is not the type of comedy that will attract everyone. The most common response I got from friends who had seen it was along the lines of “It was strange.” It is, indeed, a dark comedy of the absurd. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of films like “Brazil,” you’re sure to like this one. It is not as ambitious or as elaborate as “Brazil,” nor does it go for many big, outright laughs, but the humor is there all the same. Crazy.