Monday 13 April 2020

Movie Review: Being John Malkovich (1999)

A fiercely original drama and comedy, Being John Malkovich explores issues of fulfillment, control and sexual adventurism through a bizarre and unforgettable premise.

In New York City, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an unemployed puppeteer, married to pet-lover Lotte (Cameron Diaz). He reluctantly accepts a menial filing job at LesterCorp, located on the low-ceilinged floor 7.5 of a highrise. His boss is the elderly but sex-obsessed Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). Craig falls in love at first sight with co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who remains mostly cold and aloof.

Behind a filing cabinet, Craig uncovers a secret passage leading into the brain of actor John Malkovich (playing himself). The experience of being in someone else's head is physically and emotionally exhilarating. After Lotte has her turn in Malkovich's brain she starts to question her sexuality and also falls in love with Maxine, who reciprocates, inflaming Craig's jealousy. Maxine and Craig launch a business selling 15 minute incursions into Malkovich for $200, while Maxine starts dating the actor, timing sexual encounters for when Lotte is inside his head.

From the creative imagination of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich offers an absurdist, unhinged story. With an abundance of fresh ideas and unexpected twists at every junction, the film creates its own unique path towards upturning expectations. The film captivates by never settling for anything remotely predictable, and even late into the third act, the novel perspectives keep coming.

Kaufman plays with the intersecting concepts of being in charge and achieving personal gratification. Craig is a failure at being a puppeteer, his elaborate compositions too psychologically anguished for a broad audience. But inside Malkovich he can leverage celebrity status to fulfill an artiste dream, both by finally exerting ultimate control and transforming an actor into a puppeteer. Meanwhile Lotte finds an avenue to explore an alternative sexuality, while Maxine is game for anything that heightens her already elevated kinkiness.

But it's not all serious. As a package Being John Malkovich floats on bubbles of comical superfluity and carries an irreverent charm with just-because humour. Lotte's pet animals mainly serve to clutter Craig's life, and the monkey Elijah is suffering from his own psychological issues (complete with a flashback). The 7.5 floor with its elevator challenge and low ceiling is delightfully irrelevant. The LesterCorp staff members, including receptionist Floris (Mary Kay Place), have issues with basic language comprehension, and Dr. Lester has a succession of tangential yet crucial interventions in Craig's misadventures.

The four principal cast members have rarely been better. John Cusack fully commits to a greasy, tortured but talented artist aesthetic. Catherine Keener finds one of her career-best roles as a woman running mental laps around everyone else while seeking the next thrill. Cameron Diaz is almost unrecognizable, stripping away any hint of glamour to coddle her pets and unleash sexual excitement from unexpected experiences. And finally Malkovich himself pulls off the unique task of being himself and not himself, present as his own body but not necessarily in control.

Looking through the eyes of another as the best exploration of self, Being John Malkovich is a singular bolt of lightning.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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