In watching Being John Malkovich again recently, for the first time in awhile, the thing I was struck by is how unique it is (duh!). It doesn’t try too hard at being different, to the point that it’s going to suck, everything is matter of fact, and it’s hilarious. Its characters are flawed, but we feel for some of them a great deal. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s dramatic, it works on many levels. I’d expected this to be a 112 minute MTV video from Spiegel heir Spike Jonze, but it’s clear that with his work, combined with Charlie Kaufman’s script, the result is a story about the 3 main characters experiencing deep, life-altering experiences, and from those experiences, finding (or wanting to find) love. How they get there though, that’s another story.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, High Fidelity) is a street puppeteer dreaming of success. Sometimes his puppet shows are a little on the PG-13 tip for some G audiences, leading to a young girl’s father punching Craig. He then returns home to his wife Lotte (you’d barely notice, but it is Cameron Diaz of There’s Something About Mary) convinces him to try and find a job. Lotte runs a pet store, and their apartment is crowded with pets, among them a chimp suffering from an ulcer. With Craig’s expert hands, he manages to find a job working as a file clerk at LesterCorp, located in the Merton Flemmer building on the 7th floor. He meets and falls for Maxine, who is not afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to Craig’s passion. She tolerates Craig, knowing that he’s pretty harmless. One day at work, Craig accidentally drops a file behind a cabinet, and behind the cabinet, finds a door and a small crawlspace. Going through the door whisks him through a portal which places him inside of John Malkovich’s head for 15 minutes, before depositing him along the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig returns to work and tells Maxine (and subsequently Lotte) about the portal, and things go from there.
A lot of people have probably seen the film and can decide whether or not to put spoilers in it, but I’ll leave it to others to do that, but it’s my review, and I’m going to leave it to those who haven’t seen it to go see it. There are so many twists and turns to this story, that even after seeing it several times, seeing it again recently made me realize just how different this movie is. Cusack is in his usual outstanding form, and Keener was received an Oscar nomination for her performance as well, and Diaz, under a huge head of curly brown hair, is a pleasant surprise as the mousy Lotte. Jonze’s first feature length attempt was a winner, and he’s since continued the success with Kaufman (Adaptation). Most of all, Malkovich (In the Line of Fire) himself has to be commended, not only for the sense of humor to play himself, but to play other various roles in and out of his head with such energy. Imagine this movie if Malkovich refused the part, it certainly wouldn’t have come off as well without his effort. This is as unique as film can get. Every little twist is such a surprise, and is done with such humor, that Kaufman has to be recognized as one of the most creative minds in Hollywood. Malkovich’s discovery of his own portal, and his words to Schwartz afterwards, are so funny, and so uniquely Kaufman, it’s hard to see them done any other way. Films like this don’t come around much; they should be treasured, and Being John Malkovich is one of the best cinema treasures of recent years.
The 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are OK, there really isn’t that much to be gained from either track. If for nothing else however, put on the 5.1 surround to discover the strange sounds inside Malkovich’s head. Those sounds could be one of the most unique surround experiences I’ve heard.
Most of the film is shot with subdued lighting, so you won’t find the same type of transfer that appeared on the Adaptation Superbit release from a few months ago. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is OK, though there are some artifacts to be found on it, but because the way it was shot, there wasn’t too much to find satisfaction from in the picture.
To go along with the eccentric feel of the movie, some eccentric special features are included. The orientation video for the 7th floor and the special called American Arts and Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, both in their entirety. Either piece runs 2-4 minutes, and the majority of both were shown in the film. They’re still pretty funny, and their inclusion was nice.
There’s also a 6 minute piece called An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering, which showcases Phil Huber, the puppeteer (or marionette artist) whose services were used in the film. Huber provides his thoughts on the story and the art of puppetry in general, and the piece wraps with contact information for a Puppetry Association. It’s a short, harmless piece that helps you get inside the mind of a puppeteer, if you will.
An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving is about 4 or 5 minutes, and features the bizarre musings of a twentysomething extra who happens to own a car, and her car is used for background on the Jersey Turnpike. She’s a strange on as the talk ranges from being Mary Kay Place’s stand-in to the type of vegetables that were good at the lunch break. Worth your time in avoiding. Spike Jonze also includes an interview on the disc. The piece is 2 or 3 minutes, and is apparently rushed, as he’s in his car. It concludes with him getting out and throwing up, and then getting back in the car and driving. When I first saw this, I was as confused as everyone else is, but after seeing Spike’s (and Lester Bangs, who filmed the interview) affiliations with Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass crew, this seems more like a goof than just a strange interview. Jonze also includes a photo album, which is nothing more than 31 unremarkable on-set pictures snapped by Spike.
Biographies and filmographies from IMDB are included for the major cast players, plus Kaufman and Jonze. The trailer and TV spots are OK, the 4 spots are also unique, including one which is almost exclusively a promotional ad for JM Incorporated, the business Craig and Maxine run after the portal is discovered. There’s also the screen that warns you there’s nothing there if you select it, and sure enough, there’s nothing there. How’d I find out? Cause I don’t read too well, that’s why!
When it came out, it was worthy of purchase then, however since it’s in the bargain bin, it’s a steal, you’ve gotta have this in your library. Fans of Jonze, Kaufman or films in general should have this in their collection. An excellent, truly original film.