Movie News

Moriarty looks at BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Published at: Oct. 15, 1999, 4:49 a.m. CST

Hey folks, Harry here. Can't wait to see this film... should probably happen next week sometime, till then though I'm just being very interested in the project. I'm very interested in seeing how Jonze makes the transition from 5 and 8 minute films to feature films. He's got my full attention... I hope he keeps it. Here's Moriarty....

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

Have you ever gone to see a movie after reading a number of reviews, confident that you know what you're going to see, only to stagger out of the theater two hours later with your head reeling and your expectations shattered? That would be a fair description of my experience with the brash, bold, deeply deranged debut feature by Spike Jonze. When I first read Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH last year, I thought it was a strange little one-note goof. Then, as news of the film's casting leaked out, I began to hope for a really groovy little one-note goof. It was the idea of Spike Jonze directing that finally forced me to set aside any assumptions I had about the film, and it was the enthusiastic reviews from Venice calling it "the best comedy about gender roles since SOME LIKE IT HOT" that got me excited.

When the lights went down in the theater yesterday, it felt like I was coming to the end of a long wait. I've been a rabid fan of Jonze and his insane comic sensibility since the first time I saw the video for Weezer's "Buddy Holly." Listing his videos is like making a list of the best of the decade -- "Sabatoge," "It's Oh So Quiet," "Praise You" -- and it demonstrates his facility at hopping from style to style with ease. Whenever one of the Propaganda directors has moved from videos and commercials into features in the past, their debuts have been marked by overwhelming stylization. Michael Bay, Kinka Usher, Simon West, and David Fincher have all brought distinctive visual styles to their films to varying effect. One of my primary questions about this film was how Spike would approach the film visually. Would it be wildly slick? Would its surreal script be pumped up like a live-action cartoon?

I knew that I was in for something special, something beyond my expectations, as soon as the film's magical opening credits began. John Cusack's character, Craig Schwartz, is a puppeteer, and the film opens on him in his workshop performing a mournful little dance with a marionette that looks exactly like him. Phillip Huber is the actual puppeteer credited with the work in the film, and his contribution is fascinating, adding subtle grace notes to the sequence. Considering how often I've heard this film called a comedy, it's surprising how right away, this sequence sets a serious tone, even somber.

As we meet Craig and his wife Lotte (played at maximum frump by Cameron Diaz) and get a look at their life together, there's the pervasive stink of dreams frustrated, expectations lowered. She works at a pet store, and their dirty little apartment is jammed full of animals including birds, dogs, and a remarkable chimp named Elijah. He, on the other hand, doesn't work at all. As he reminds her when she brings up the subject of a job, "I'm a puppeteer." He's reduced to performing shows on a makeshift stage on the city sidewalks, where the complex, even adult nature of his work gets him assaulted by angry parents. He finally gives in and goes after a filing job that requires "very fast hands." It's here, once he's hired at LesterCorp (on the 7 1/2 floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building) that the film gets seriously strange and really comes to life.

Two things enter and alter Craig's life as a result of his new job. The first is the predatory Maxine, played to bitch goddess perfection by Catherine Keener. For years, Keener has been one of those indie scene stalwarts who felt like a well-kept secret. Anyone who's seen her work in films like WALKING & TALKING or LIVING IN OBLIVION is well aware of what a quirky, capable actress she can be. In the last few years, she's been creeping into the mainstream with roles in films like 8MM and OUT OF SIGHT. This is the kind of role, though, that could launch her into a much higher profile, and it deserves to. The other turbulent force that Craig encounters is a mysterious doorway he finds hidden behind a filing cabinet. When he crawls into it, he discovers that it's a portal that allows him to spend 15 minutes experiencing the world from inside John Malkovich -- yes, you read that right -- before getting burped out into a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike.

Revealing any more than that of the film's plot just isn't fair. Besides, it really doesn't help convey what it is that makes the film so deeply affecting. Jonze has created an entirely persuasive fantasy world here by taking the most fantastic elements and grounding them in absolute reality. For the most part, there's an improvised, handheld quality to the film, making even the most elaborate absurdities seem possible. Maybe it's because of that decision that the movie, despite some screamingly funny material, doesn't strike me as a comedy in any way. Instead, I thought it was an achingly sad movie, a broken-hearted fable as told by a clown that serves in many ways as a Dadaist counterpart to AMERICAN BEAUTY and FIGHT CLUB.

In other filmmakers' hands, this material might well have gotten out of control. Jonze manages to pull off this enormously tricky juggling act of tonal shifts and even makes it look easy. He can toss in a wicked, hysterical supporting role by Charlie Sheen as himself, taking obvious pleasure in lines like, "Lesbian witches... that's hot, man," and then he can turn around and find genuine poignancy in a scene as crazed as a chimp having a flashback (!) to childhood or in Cameron Diaz's desperate plea to Cusack: "Please don't stand in the way of my actualization as a man."

I want to suggest that the Academy create a special Oscar this year for Biggest Balls, and then just go ahead and give it directly to Malkovich for not only allowing this movie, but for also giving one of the most engaging performances of the year as himself. Sort of. See, I don't believe for a minute that the "John Horatio Malkovich" of the film is meant to literally represent him. It's an exaggeration, a great role that lets him rip his own image specifically and the ridiculousness of celebrity in general. As with the film itself, Malkovich's performance starts funny, but gradually reveals itself as something deeper and more profound. In particular, there's a moment that echoes the film's opening that sent chills down my spine even as it made me howl in open astonishment. I'm not sure if we've ever seen an actor be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing himself (and Connery in THE UNTOUCHABLES doesn't count), but add Malkovich's name to the short list for that always-crowded category this year.

By the time the closing credits roll over some truly moving underwater images to the sound of Bjork's haunting "Amphibian," I found myself choking back unlikely tears. The film is an audacious and original triumph that has a lot to say about what we settle for, what we want, and what we'll do to chase a dream. Carter Burwell's score, the startlingly good digital work by Grey Matter FX, K.K. Barrett's design work and Lance Acord's photography all combine to create a fresh new voice in cinema under the watchful eye of Jonze and his producers Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin, and Vincent Landay. I know this is becoming a mantra for me this year at AICN, but let me say this again... 1999 has been an embarrassment of riches. The only down side to films this strong is that it sets the bar impossibly high for the next century of film. Let's hope that visionaries like Jonze are up for the challenge. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback

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  • Oct. 15, 1999, 4:52 p.m. CST

    I cannot wait to see this!

    by Munku

    The first time I saw the trailer for this, I knew I had to see it. But after reading this review, I'm practically hopping up and down in my chair in excitement! This is going to be good.

  • Oct. 15, 1999, 5:28 p.m. CST

    Malkovich directing

    by zaeta

    Malkovich was on Charlie Rose last night (October 14). It was a great interview compared to the one on Letterman earlier on. He mentioned that he is directing a new movie in Spain, I think, and that it is based on a book he read about five years ago. Did anyone catch the title or know of the book. I tried to query imdb about it but no mention of any books based on his up coming work. Thanks, -josh

  • Oct. 15, 1999, 5:37 p.m. CST

    fincher's cameo

    by montgomery

    I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't seen it, but Fincher appears late in the film as a critic. The man who approaches Malkovich in the restaraunt was the actor from There's Something About Mary who was Stiller's high school friend and then a doctor or something. I am forgetting his name at the momment.