Criterion // 1999 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 28th, 2012
Be all that someone else can be.
"Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?"
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, High Fidelity) is a struggling puppeteer who has finally been forced to seek out a steadier source of income. At the insistence of his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, The Mask), Craig goes to a job interview on the 7 1/2th floor of a Manhattan office building. 7 1/2th? Yes, it's stuck just between the 7th and 8th floors and has a very low ceiling, forcing everyone to hunch over as they navigate the office. It's not a particularly inviting atmosphere, but Craig accepts the job regardless. One of the perks is that he gets to work with the beautiful Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener, Where the Wild Things Are), though Maxine's feelings towards Craig fall somewhere between indifferent and hostile.
One day, Craig makes an astonishing discovery. Behind one of the office filing cabinets, there is a secret portal which allows anyone who enters the opportunity to spend fifteen minutes in the mind of noted actor John Malkovich (played by Malkovich himself). Craig is uncertain of what to do with this marvelous discovery, but Maxine is quick to suggest that they treat the portal as a sort of novelty experience and sell tickets. Craig reluctantly agrees, but worries that this major breakthrough is being treated a little too cavalierly. What are the potential consequences of using Malkovich's mind as an amusement park ride?
Is there a more imaginative or ambitious screenwriter than Charlie Kaufman? He makes tasks that would crush other writers seem easy and pulls off tonal balancing acts that most films shouldn't even dream of attempting. Being John Malkovich is the first film of Kaufman's increasingly impressive career, and it somehow manages to be funny, introspective, goofy, sad, angry, empathetic, caustic, philosophical, understated and melodramatic all at once without ever seeming self-contradictory or uneven at any moment. It's a dazzling experience because it gets you on so many levels; how many movies can be described as both hysterical and haunting?
A subject that comes up on numerous occasions over the course of Criterion's supplemental package is the manner in which the film foreshadowed the end of personal privacy. In the era of social networking, TMZ and reality television, people are increasingly comfortable with the notion of invading personal space for the sake of entertainment. When Malkovich discovers what's been going on, he confronts Craig with anger and bewilderment:
Malkovich: "That portal is mine and must be sealed up forever. For the
love of God."
Craig: "With all respect sir, I discovered that portal. It's my livelihood."
Malkovich: "It's my head, Schwartz! I'll see you in court."
Craig: "Who's to say I won't be seeing what you're seeing...in court?"
It isn't difficult to draw a connection between the scenario the film presents and real-life instances in which hungry reporters hunt down the personal e-mails, texts and phone conversations of various celebrities. Of course, the film isn't a narcissistic H8R-stye pity party for a celebrity's loss of personal space, but rather an exploration of human nature. One of the film's slyest bits of commentary is the manner in which it presents Malkovich as an entirely unremarkable human being. When people enter his head, what they experience is generally the sort of thing they could experience at home: taking a shower, eating toast while reading The Wall Street Journal, ordering bath towels from a catalogue, etc. Additionally, most of Craig and Maxine's customers only seem to have a vague familiarity with the actor (they've seen his face, but generally can't recall anything he's actually appeared in), so it's not as if they're getting to slip inside the skin of someone they're obsessed with. What makes the experience so exhilarating? Well, it's simply the chance to see life through another person's eyes. What's lost on everyone is the fact that another person is being harmed in the process.
The film would be worth watching for this satirical deconstruction alone, but Kaufman and Jonze have so much more they want to explore. In their central trio of of characters (Craig, Maxine and eventually Lottie), Kaufman uncovers various ugly (and hilarious) aspects of human nature. To some degree, they all behave unforgivably, yet we feel for them simply because they're drawn with such familiar complexity. Craig may act despicably, but he's driven by a deep-rooted longing for a woman who finds him repulsive. The movie's endless cleverness never gets in the way of allowing raw, messy human emotion to enter the fray, a skill that Kaufman has continued to sharpen in the years since. The movie somehow never loses its beating heart or its biting wit at any moment. Consider a particularly sublime exchange between a frustrated, heartbroken Craig and an irritated Maxine:
Craig (looking like a trainwreck): "I've fallen in love, and this is
what people who've fallen in love look like!"
Maxine: "Well, you picked the unrequited variety. It's very bad for the skin."
It's a moment that makes you want to laugh and wince all at once, and it's the sort of moment that Being John Malkovich delivers time and time again. Of course, Kaufman's writing is so obviously brilliant that one's tendency is to forget about the director (the films Kaufman writes are generally thought of as "Charlie Kaufman movies" in the same way that Glengarry Glen Ross and The Edge are thought of as "David Mamet movies"), but the savvy Spike Jonze deserves credit for bringing Kaufman's ideas to life with such skill. The endlessly complex ideas Kaufman offers could prove a nightmare for many directors, but Jonze manages to keep Being John Malkovich entirely accessible without compromising any of its fascinating ideas.
The film's tricky balancing act is helped immensely by a game-for-anything cast. John Cusack has been cast as a sad sack on many occasions, but rarely has he seemed as broken and despairing as he does in this role. Craig is self-absorbed and loathsome in many ways, yet we feel for him immensely because Cusack allows us to see darker pieces of ourselves within him (not to mention the fact that the assorted punishments he receives tend to outweigh his crimes). Cameron Diaz has rarely been better than she is in this film, bringing an earnest naivete to the table that hasn't been tapped into frequently enough in the years since. The ever-reliable Catherine Keener is as terrific as ever, and makes her character seem even more terrifying by underplaying her nastier moments. Though Keener's Maxine is perhaps the most thoroughly cruel character in the film, even she is eventually humanized in a touching way. Orson Bean generates a lot of laughs as Craig and Maxine's dotty employer, and even Charlie Sheen is perfectly cast in a clever cameo role. Finally, there's Malkovich himself, who begins with a dryly amusing version of his public persona and then moves onto...ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that the actor does some of the most hilariously off-kilter work of his career during the film's second half.
Being John Malkovich (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection has received a very attractive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that represents a huge upgrade from the previous DVD release. The film is somewhat dimly lit during certain sequences, and these moments benefit from dramatically greater clarity and depth in hi-def. The level of detail is strong throughout (despite a handful of softer moments), flesh tones are natural and the muted palette is rich and absorbing. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is terrific, beautifully preserving the film's intriguing sound design, dialogue and music. The score by Carter Burwell is a tremendous attribute; a soulful effort that always underlines the deeper human emotions rather than the surface-level comedy or weirdness (this is an approach that Burwell has employed successful on numerous occasions during his collaborations with The Coen Brothers). It's a rich, immersive mix that should satisfy discriminating audiophiles -- again, you'll hear things that were more or less lost in the muddier DVD mix.
Criterion's supplemental package for Being John Malkovich is an unconventional mix of oddities. Things kick off with a scene-specific commentary from Jonze's colleague and competitor Michel Gondry. The track was initially recorded for the duration of the film, but had to be edited down to an hour due to, "accuracy, audience interest and legal liability." I can certainly believe that, as Gondry's bewildering comments are often hilariously inexplicable. "What the #$@%! I didn't direct this," he begins, and things go from there. Over the course of his commentary, he lusts after the actresses, declares still-living actor Orson Bean to be dead, rambles incoherently about his relationship with Jonze, bitterly rants about how much people hated Human Nature and more. Midway through, he declares that he has "run out of $#%@ to say" and simply calls Jonze to engage in a similarly bewildering conversation for the remainder of the chat. There are moments when the commentary is certainly rather trying, but the off-kilter bursts of hilarity more than compensate for that.
Elsewhere, we're treated to a half-hour chat between John Hodgman and John Malkovich. Despite Hodgman's comic background, it's a mostly serious conversation that delivers some of the meatiest analysis the supplements have to offer. You also get a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage assembled by Lance Bangs, a 15-minute interview with Jonze in which the director shows us some of his personal behind-the-scenes photos, a brief featurette on puppeteering, the full versions of the hilarious productions featured within the movie ("American Arts & Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" and "7 ½ Floor Orientation"), a trailer, some TV spots and a booklet featuring a goofy conversation (one that expertly satirizes the occasional pretentiousness of Criterion essays) between Jonze and fictional character Perkus Tooth.
Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. Malkovich!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scene Commentary
* Short Films
* TV Spots