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BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich
Director:  Spike Jonze
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  USA Home Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  May 2, 2000

Film ****

If you’re one of the many who thinks that nothing truly original comes out of the movies anymore, look no further than Being John Malkovich…a film with an almost limitless sense of imagination, comic possibilities, astonishing visuals and pure, unadulterated delight in the art of cinema.  It maintains a wonderful sense of energy and playfulness throughout…just when you think the movie has created an established set of rules for itself, it grins wickedly at you and smashes right through the boundaries.  It was my pick for last year’s best film.  I’ve seen it four times and counting, and it just keeps getting better and better.

Craig Schwartz (a wonderful John Cusack) is a struggling artist.  A puppeteer, to be exact.  His marionettes are expertly crafted and manipulated, and seem to exist in a strange world of sexual frustration and neurosis.  Struggling to make ends meet, his wife Lotte (look closely, that really is Cameron Diaz) suggests he finds a real job.  His quest takes him to the 7 ½th floor of a downtown office building, a place that gives new meaning to the phrase “low overhead”.  Here, he meets the beautiful but abrasive Maxine (Keener, in her Oscar nominated role), and begins to fall in love with her.  “Are you married?” she asks him at one point.  “Yeah,” he answers, “but enough about me.”

Just as the film seems to be settling into the rhythm of a comical love triangle, the twist that gives it its title comes into play.  Craig finds a hidden panel in his office behind a filing cabinet.  He cautiously crawls through, only to be sucked into…you guessed it…the mind of actor John Malkovich.  In one of the picture’s many technical marvels, we get to hear and see what Craig experiences, looking through John’s eyes as he finishes his breakfast and heads out to catch a cab.  The experience lasts fifteen minutes, after which Craig is jettisoned out near the New Jersey Turnpike (well, why not?).

Soon, he shares the experience with the women in his life, with decidedly different and hilarious results.  Lotte enjoys being Malkovich so much, she begins to be convinced she’s really a man trapped in a woman’s body.  The enterprising Maxine sets up an after hours business, charging people for their fifteen minutes of somebody else’s fame.  And that’s only the beginning.  The comedy really starts to fly when Maxine and Lotte start using Malkovich in a way that has to be seen to be believed.  And of course, it hits the fan big time once John Malkovich becomes wise to the portal.  In one of the most disarming, shocking and hysterical scenes ever captured on film, Malkovich enters his own portal.  Again, you have to see it to believe it.

But the fun and surprises are far from over.  Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on what the film is about and will accomplish, it has plenty more in store, including a few terrific surprise cameos, a romp through John Malkovich’s subconscious, and a great ending with an ironic twist.

I could literally go on for pages…I do in my mind every time I watch the film again.  No comic possibility is left unexplored, and even when the movie asks the big existential questions that have to be asked when dealing with such an incredible transcendental experience, it always does so in fast and furiously funny ways.

The cast is first rate and enthusiastic, but for my money, special credit must be given to John Malkovich, who has a much more challenging job in this picture than just being himself.  He gets the good sport of the year award, and I, for one, am eternally grateful that he had the gumption and sense of humor not to pass up this project.  And a special mention goes to Cameron Diaz, too, for discarding her normal beautiful looks to play the frumpy Lotte in what has to be the best role of her career.

But the real stars of the picture?  Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and first time feature director Spike Jonze.  These two men have created a modern masterpiece and a comic landmark.  Kaufman’s script is smart, witty, and wickedly satirical, and Jonze brings every savory moment to the screen with the panache of a magic show…he’ll wow you time and time again, but all the while, something even better is always around the corner.  Right now, I’m looking forward to the next Spike Jonze film, whatever that may turn out to be, more than any project from any other director.

Video ***

Having seen this picture three times theatrically, I can vouch that this is an excellent transfer of the source material to disc…which is not to say this is necessarily a demonstration quality DVD.  There is quite a bit of softness apparent in the imaging, particularly in the many lower light settings…but again, this is simply how the movie looks, no fault of the anamorphic transfer.  I actually found it kind of appealing that the film had the feel of a low budget indie picture, even though some of the effects in it obviously required a bit of cash.  The print is very clean, and no evidence of compression is noticeable.

Audio ***

This is a decent 5.1 mix, with most of the action occurring on the front stage.  The rear speakers are occasionally harnessed for a bit of ambience and background noise, as well as taking some of the spread of the musical score.  The subwoofer kicks in nicely from time to time, especially in the portal scenes where a low distant echoing humming noise drones on to remind you of the tunnel.  The soundtrack is mostly dialogue oriented, but with a few nice, bold bits of dynamics to pepper the audio from time to time.  The disc is clean and clear throughout, and overall, represents a listening experience with no real complaints.

Features ***

The features package seems designed to further the oddness of the movie experience.  There is a trailer, four TV spots that are quite weird, but enjoyable, cast and crew info, a full look at two of the movie’s video segments (the one on the 7 ½th floor, and the John Horatio Malkovich documentary), a page “with nothing on it” (it’s true), a look behind the film’s puppeteering and traffic scenes, a photo gallery, and finally, a short interview segment with director Spike Jonze.  I’m not sure if that last one was supposed to be a joke…I sure hope it was.

Summary:

Being John Malkovich is a fresh, imaginative and inventive comedy that represents everything I love about the art of cinema.  Its intelligent no-rules approach, original subject matter, and endless possibilities keep it a film that you will treasure every moment of, and then want to see again.  Highly, highly recommended.