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The brain-bending Spike Jonze curio gets the Criterion high-def treatment. Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich MALKOVICH!
Criterion / 118 Minutes / 1999 / Rated R / Street Date: May 15, 2012
While many films are lauded (or derided) by the labels "quirky," "offbeat" or "original," very few films actually earn the right to be praised for possessing such qualities. Usually, most independent and Hollywood product strives to throw the audience condescending "curveballs" or wholly implausible and manipulative surprise revelations that only come off as desperate or gimmicky. But in 1999, a film finally presented a truly imaginative and unique vision that was artistic, thought-provoking and funny, yet was commercially accessible. That film was Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, and what a rare feat it was in modern Hollywood!
To describe the plot might be close to impossible, and would hardly do the film justice. John Cusack plays a frustrated and unsuccessful puppeteer who spends his days toiling on street corners for spare change. His wife, played almost unrecognizably by Cameron Diaz (who deserves kudos for fearlessly playing against type) houses a variety of animals in their tiny apartment, and finally persuades Cusack to get "a real job." After landing a an office assistant position on "the 7 1/2 floor," he soon begins flirting (rather unsuccessfully) with his new coworker, the sexy and sophisticated Catherine Keener. But then his world is turned upside down when he discovers a portal behind a file cabinet in the office, a portal into...John Malkovich. Soon, he invites both Diaz and Keener to discover life inside Malkovich's head, and the complications that ensure are not easily describable!
If I'm beginning to sound a bit vague in this description, it is because I want to resist spoiling any of the films genuine surprises. This is definitely the type of film that should be enjoyed without extensive knowledge of the film beforehand. Truth be told, at first I was expecting some pretentious piece of art school garbage, or worse, a feature-length Spike Jonze music video (especially as Jonze had been a wonder boy at MTV for years). But my fears soon proved unfounded, as the film is bold, audacious, thought-provoking, brilliantly crafted and sublimely funny. The pace moves quickly and Jonze is able to deftly handle seismic shifts in tone and plot twists, yet never sacrifices the humanity of the characters nor turns them into caricatures. The script, by Charles Kaufman, is able to make create an allegory and pointed satire out of role-playing that touches on art, performance, fame and lust, yet doesn't lapse into today's current obsession with postmodern shtick, "hip" irony or annoying smugness.
The performances are all dead-on, and aside from Catherine Keener's Academy Award-nominated supporting turn, Diaz continues to display a fine comedic flair and Cusack is far less insufferable than usual (I actually liked him in this quite a bit here, which means a lot coming from me.) And it is a testament to John Malkovich, the actor, that he manages to turn in his finest performance in ages playing... himself. Yet, like what would seem to be a one joke movie, Malkovich as Malkovich manages to send up his own on-screen persona yet bring warmth, vulnerability and humor to his own theatrical recreation. And the scene where he goes through the portal into his own head is a surreal masterpiece, and he plays it amazingly. Like the film, it is mind bender that somehow, this works completely.