The following review is completely spoiler free!
An excellent choice this week if I do say so myself. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze (for his feature-length directorial debut), ‘Being John Malkovich’ was always going to be a work of genius wasn’t it?
Starring John Cusack as Craig Schwartz, a street puppeteer who is down on his luck and takes a job as a filing clerk, this film is one of those where the premise is so god damn bizarre that it has to be done well in order to work. And my word is it done well!
Craig and his work colleague Maxine (Catherine Keener), who he instantly falls madly in love with of course, set up a business off the back of a startling discovery. Craig finds a small door in one of the offices which leads to the mind of none other than John Malkovich, played by the man himself! The portal allows the user to see through the eyes of the actor for 15 minutes, before being spat out by the New Jersey turnpike.
Craig and Maxine, who stresses multiple times to Craig that she is not romantically interested in him, charge $200 for 15 minutes inside the portal. The beauty of the film lies in the parallels it draws between Craig’s love of puppeteering and the joy he gets from being John Malkovich.
Not only is this film surreal, brilliantly clever and thought provoking, it is also laugh out loud funny. Some of the characters Craig meets are absolutely hilarious, their lines delivered with perfect timing, and Charlie Kaufman’s script delivering on every level. Especially funny are Craig’s boss who is convinced he has a speech impediment despite speaking very clearly, and the secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place) who mishears everything Craig says.
A lot of the film takes place at Craig’s office building, where he works on floor 7 1/2. The ceilings are very low so everyone walks around hunched over, and it is just a wonderful little detail. There is no need for at all really but it adds another element of humour and mystery. John Cusack acts his part brilliantly throughout the film, but a particular highlight for me was his arrival at the floor and how he reacts to these new strange surroundings.
One main character I haven’t even mentioned yet is Craig’s wife Lotte, played by Cameron Diaz. From the off, we realise that she is not your average wife. She has a slightly unhealthy obsession with her pets, of which there are many. The standout being her pet chimpanzee, who she treats like she would a child, and it is clear that although Craig has gotten used to this way of living he does not necessarily enjoy it.
The story picks up a gear once Lotte has experienced being John Malkovich. She claims that when she is in his head, everything makes sense and so this leads her to believe that she wants a sex change. She becomes attracted to Maxine as well, except now there’s a difference. The feeling is mutual.
The relationship is far from straightforward however, but I won’t say anymore than that. I can only highly encourage you to see it for yourself.
Craig mentions a couple of times that his love for puppeteering comes from the sense of being in someone else’s body, the feeling of control and being able to see things from the perspective of the puppets. It is this passion combined with the complicated love triangle that leads to the real crux of the film, and it is so clever, so superbly acted and yet so strangely simple that it somehow starts to feel normal yet manages to keep that sense of surrealism.
John Malkovich is wonderful as himself, which may not sound that impressive but his is a performance which must be watched if you haven’t already seen it. Catherine Keener brings a wonderfully brutal, sarcastic quality to the role of Maxine. She’s actually a real bitch but it’s impossible not to like her.
It’s a film full of memorable, fantastic scenes, one of which includes a hilarious cameo from Willie Garson. To top it all off, there is a brilliant twist involving Craig’s boss Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) which I did not see coming.
Before I finish I must also mention the music by Carter Burwell. It is a very subtle, beautiful score which features some very calming slow piano pieces that fit the tone of the film excellently.
A brilliantly entertaining film that will not only make you laugh, but will also make you think. A ridiculously silly concept, but one that works so well thanks to the very talented cast, brilliant direction from Spike Jonze and of course a memorable script from the genius that is Charlie Kaufman.
A fairly extensive range of extras are available. A theatrical trailer and some TV spots however aren’t the most exciting things in the world. There is also the 7 1/2 floor orientation that Craig has to sit through in the film, not sure why they have included it as a bonus feature though. One viewing is enough.
You can also rewatch another short clip from the film about John Malkovich the puppeteer, which again I don’t really count as a bonus feature because you have already seen it.
What is surely the most interesting of the extras is a short, 3 minute interview with director Spike Jonze. It is unlike any interview you will ever see, and ends in a very strange way. See it for yourself to understand. There is also Spike Jonze’s photo album which contains 31 on-set photos, some in colour but most black and white. There is also some background information on the main cast and crew.