"Being John Malkovich"

Spike Jonze's feature debut tells us what it's like to be inside a famous actor's brain -- and what it's like to be a marionette.


Suzy Hansen
July 13, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"Being John Malkovich"
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring John Cusack, John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place
Universal; widescreen, 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Extras: Interview with the director, "Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering," cast bios, more

Charlie Kaufman, a shy one-time TV writer for Chris Elliot's paperboy comedy "Get a Life," may not have won an Oscar last year for his outlandish screenplay for "Being John Malkovich." But its brilliant originality shoved him into the sort of spotlight that, as he has made clear in numerous interviews since the movie's release, he painstakingly avoids.

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Ironically, it's the tormented longing for such recognition that lies at the heart of "Being John Malkovich," directed by rock-video veteran Spike Jonze. Kaufman's desperate characters find solace from anonymity by sliding down a portal into John Malkovich's brain (curiously located behind a filing cabinet on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of an office building). It doesn't matter that they don't know much about the actor. What's vital to these characters is that they can finally be anyone besides themselves.

For 15 minutes the portal allows them to perch inside Malkovich's brain, chew his toast, read his Wall Street Journal and contemplate his choice of bath towels. But only the self-loathing Craig Schwartz (endearingly morose John Cusack), a hapless puppeteer, can control Malkovich as expertly as he manipulates his wooden dolls, and once he's inside the actor, he can finally do all the things he never could do as himself: Get the girl, acquire fame, feel power. When his icy lust interest, Maxine (Catherine Keener), and his frazzled wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), learn of his discovery, they too want in on Malkovich. Maxine starts a late-night business charging folks $200 a head (no pun intended) to get inside the actor's brain, and Lotte undergoes a life-changing transformation after spending some time there.

It gets weirder. And after a while, the movie devolves into fantastical textbook jargon and ends up exhausting its fascinating premise. But there's no doubt "Being John Malkovich" is the product of an inventive mind and an audacious eye, together tapping into deranged and freakish desires in all of us.

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The DVD highlights include an interview with Jonze that imparts very little understanding of his artistry. (It does, however, show him puking by the side of the road.) It's all part of the Kaufman/Jonze wit and mockery, but while the DVD's special features are demented and funny, they're disappointing for anyone craving behind-the-scenes footage.

The exception is a dressing-room interview with Phil Huber, the real-life marionette man, which draws appropriate attention to the film's astounding puppet scenes. Perhaps it's not the transcendent art form Craig Schwartz believes it is, but in Huber's puppeteering -- the way his marionettes cower in a defeated slump or quiver with erotic tension before a long-anticipated kiss -- taut strings and dancing fingertips render something as haunting and as human as the desire to wear someone else's skin.


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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