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Malkovich himself steals the show in Jonze's directorial debut

Being John Malkovich
Starring: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean, and Mary Kay Place
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Producers: Steve Golin, Vincent Landay, Sandy Stern, and Michael Stipe
Director: Spike Jonze
MPAA Rating: R for language, sex, and some violence

Being John Malkovich makes a strong case for all those critics who keep complaining that there is nothing original in Hollywood. This is just about as original as they come. However, the film also makes a strong case that perhaps originality is not all its cracked up to be. I doubt I've seen a film this year that has invented so many original ideas to only destroy most of them by the end credits. 1999 has seen a slew of original pictures, varying from Fight Club to American Beauty to Three Kings (which also starred this film's director Spike Jonze). But by far, this is the most bizarrely original. Does that make it a good film? Not in the least.

Of course, it's not a horrible film by any means. In fact, Being John Malkovich does many things right, not the least of which is casting Cameron Diaz as an ugly-duckling who thinks she may feel better as a man. Honestly, I wanted to like this movie. I'm a strong advocate for originality, but after witnessing this, I may have to question my own stance on the issue. There's so much subtext and so many thought-provoking themes here that they basically swamp the film. While trying to teach us about the issues of individuality and infamy, it forgot that its primary goal is to entertain.

Being John Malkovich begins as your typical, dysfunctional dark comedy. A married couple Craig and Lotte Schwartz (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) seems to love each other, but it's also fairly obvious that they haven't had sex (or any other type of physical contact) in a long time. It also doesn't look like either have taken a bath in days. Craig works as a street-corner puppeteer, performing rather "adult" fare that ends up getting him punched in the face more than it does get him anywhere successful. He dreams of becoming a famous puppeteer, but can't seem to find his niche. Lotte works at a pet store, often bringing the animals home with her at night. She begs Craig to get a real job that actually pays him more than a few bucks a day.

He does find one--one that puts his skills to good use: a filing assistant. Arriving at his place of employment, he discovers that his office is on the 7 1/2 floor of the building, one that requires average-sized humans to stoop just to walk. Apparently the floor was designed as a workplace for the owner's wife who just happened to be a "little person." Or that's how the rumor goes. Maxine (Catherine Keener) doubts the story, and is more than vocal of her opinions. When Craig asks her what she means, she tells him that he has no chance of getting down her blouse. Well, at least she's upfront about it. Her offputtish remarks (of course) spark his interest, and he soon becomes infatuated with her poise and coldheartedness. Plus, she's got (in the words of Karen Walker) nice boobies. Soon enough, their interests collide when Craig discovers a portal behind a filing cabinet. This portal leads directly into the brain of (guess who?) John Malkovich.

Basically, that's all you need to know about the plot. After that, the enjoyment comes from the discovery and surprises. What happens at the end of the portal? Why does the person get spit out onto the New Jersey Turnpike after the so-called "15 minutes of fame?" These aren't really answered, nor are they required to be. This is a film that creates an alternate reality and plays everything as if it were reality. The actors perform as if these things really are happening, and that there really isn't anything absurd about it. So there's a portal behind a filing cabinet, big deal! But for some reason (perhaps from boredom), I couldn't help but questioning the film's own internal logic. If there is a 7 1/2 floor, what does the 7th floor look like? The owner of the building didn't intend to have a half-floor when he built it, so did they have to cut a floor in half? Who created the door? Did it just appear there magically? But for the love of God, I could not figure out the one question that bothered me the most: why John Malkovich?

Certainly, John Malkovich is recognizable, and he's been in some very good movies, but judging from the life Malkovich lives (in the film), could they not have picked an actor with... oh, I don't know... anything interesting in their lives? Or better yet, given Malkovich something to do. There is a very, very brief glimpse of Brad Pitt in an interview, and in that second, I wished I was watching Being Brad Pitt. Malkovich's performance is the only real thing that keeps this film from becoming a yawner. It may seem a simple task to play yourself, but what if you had to play yourself inhabited by someone else? Malkovich is more than up to the task, revelling in the outrageous things he must put himself through. There is a scene where Malkovich himself enters his own portal and the results are some of this year's finest filmmaking. Unfortunately, it's only in this one scene where the film truly shines.

John Cusack is a performer who specializes in eccentric characters, and this is one of his better performances (his talent doesn't even come close to that of his sister Joan's). It's good, but he gets shown up by virtually everyone... even Brad Pitt. Cameron Diaz eschews her gorgeous looks in exchange for a really irritating character with some quirks. Diaz is up to the task, but it's really not a likable character to begin with. Plus, making her look like a homely freak doesn't help. Catherine Keener is a bright spot, with a nicely understated performance. Keener makes Maxine stand out, and her change from being a stand-offish beauty to a loving, caring woman is actually quite subtle. Orson Bean is also good, but for some reason his talks about sex and women are more offputting than funny. Surprisingly, Charlie Sheen makes an appearance, and gives a funny and welcomed performance. And be on the lookout... director David Fincher has a cameo during an interview sequence!

Director Spike Jonze (last seen in Three Kings--he was the fourth king) sharpened his skills directing MTV videos and TV commercials. I don't recall seeing any of his work, but I must question his use of visuals here. Instead of being pleasing to the eye, it's almost a chore to watch the screen. He bathes the film in a grimy, dirty quality, and it's basically just really ugly. A nice touch might have been a Wizard of Oz type of filming, with scenes from within Malkovich filmed in a surrealist Technicolor quality. Instead, it's the same grime. It's an admirable approach, but it doesn't really work. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's script is definitely original, but it's certainly not very funny. There are two scenes that made me laugh out loud (the aforementioned Malkovich enters Malkovich scene, and a flashback to a chimp's past), but mostly the comedy is of the amusing kind. And as much as critics have been praising the film's unpredictability, nothing surprised me. It's just a boring film set in completely original circumstances.

Being John Malkovich is rated R for language, sex, some nudity, and some violence. With the film being critically lauded, all this basically points to is that critics are yearning so much for something original that anything different is held up and labelled good. There's nothing exciting, and certainly not entertaining, here. Jonze definitely has potential as a director. His storytelling methods are rather easy to follow, without confusing the viewer. Perhaps next time, he'll get some material that will fit him more. Until then, this is just another lineup of missed opportunities.

** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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