movie film review | chris tookey

Being John Malkovich

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  Being John Malkovich Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
9.00 /10
Craig Schwartz: John Cusack , Lotte Schwartz: Cameron Diaz , Maxine: Catherine Keener
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Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Released: 1999
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 112

A puppeteer makes a startling discovery.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, pictured right) is a greasy-haired puppeteer. He has tremendous manipulative talent but no concept of how to market his darkly neurotic, sexually explicit street-theatre production of Abelard and Heloise. His mousy, frumpish wife (Cameron Diaz, so cleverly cast against type that she is almost unrecognisable) is more fond of her pet chimpanzee than her husband, and fed up with his whingeing self-pity. "Maybe you'd feel better if you got a job or something," she suggests.

Easily manipulated, he puts on a tie and jacket underneath his anorak and mooches off to find a job as a filing clerk - after all, he has nimble fingers - in a weird company on floor 7 and a half of an office block. It can be reached only by stopping the lift between floors and prising open the steel doors with a crowbar.

It's a firm which prides itself on low overheads, so the ceiling is only about four feet from the floor. Some employees are short, but most - including Craig - have to walk around in a perpetual crouch.

Craig does surprisingly well in his interview with the firm's carrot-juice-drinking, sex-obsessed, 105 year-old boss (Orson Bean). Craig falls hopelessly in love with one of his colleagues, a self-confident career-woman called Maxine (Catherine Keener, pictured left), who regards him as a loser. When he tries to seduce her in a bar by telling her he's a puppeteer, she simply asks for the bill.

Craig finds the metaphorical way into her heart, however. It's behind one of the office filing cabinets - a tunnel leading, quite literally, into the brain of the actor John Malkovich, where he spends exactly a quarter of an hour before being ejected out of the sky at the side of the New Jersey turnpike.

He regards the experience as mind-blowing. "Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this is?" he asks Maxine. She, being less complicated, regards it as a business opportunity: "We'll sell tickets". They market 15 minutes in the brain of a celebrity, at 200 dollars a go. The idea takes off, but in unexpected directions.

One of the characters so likes it inside Malkovich's head that she decides to become a transexual. Another gets the idea of moving into John Malkovich's brain permanently and turning him into a lifesize puppet. And when Malkovich himself discovers what's going on, he tries potholing into his own brain with farcical and nightmarish results…

Being John Malkovich is probably the oddest mainstream movie ever made, and there will be some who find it implausible and silly. These will probably be the same people who dislike Harry Potter books or were bored by the Alice adventures of Lewis Carroll.

I loved it.

I loved its originality, its cynical take on modern celebrity, gender roles and the marketing of art. I loved John Malkovich's performance as a vainer, more actorish version of himself. I even loved Charlie Sheen sending himself up as John Malkovich's highly improbable best friend.

Being John Malkovich is hilariously funny, a wonderfully original piece of story-telling and a brilliantly sustained flight of imagination.

This has to be the least predictable movie of the year, yet it has its own twisted logic and a level of inventiveness that every surrealist from Salvador Dali to the Monty Python team would have envied. You keep thinking it's going to run out of steam, but it never does.

And it has surprising depth. It poses interesting, disturbing questions about the extent to which we are all changed by our physical appearance, by our gender and by how others perceive us. It examines one of the reasons why people become actors - to explore their own personality by becoming others.

It's a comic meditation upon how modern women manipulate men, and how so much art nowadays is about personality, marketing and fashion. There are thoughts on identity and immortality that could set philosophers pondering for days.

And it has genuine affection for its bizarre characters, each of them splendidly acted.

So many American films look as if they have come off a conveyor belt. This is one of a kind. It is a first feature for its writer and director (the latter of whom is to be seen playing a dumb redneck in Three Kings). It's a debut that's as audacious and revolutionary in its way as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane - and a lot funnier.

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