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BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
It won critical favor in its exclusive debut, but does it live up to the hype?
By Steve Biodrowski
November 05, 1999
Is it possible for a film to be both good and overrated? If we ever had any doubts, they were answered with a resounding 'yes' with the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - a film that deserved praise but not the universal accolades it received. Not to be outdone, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH made its exclusive debut last weekend to a wildly enthusiastic response from numerous critics. It's easy to see what they liked about the film: it is imaginative and original. What's hard to understand is how this enthusiasm managed to blind critics to the film's fairly obvious shortcomings.
As you probably know by now, the film's premise is that a small tunnel hidden behind a filing cabinet in an office building is actually a portal to the inside of John Malkovich's head. Those who climb through are treated to a brief stint experiencing all the sensations occurring to Malkovich; then they are unceremoniously deposited, falling from the sky, onto the Jersey turnpike.
The idea is at once fascinating, funny, and sillywords that equally describe the film. All of the imagination went into the situations, resulting in numerous imaginative touches and outrageous scenes. However, not nearly as much thought went into crafting a story that explored the situation dramatically; instead, the film works on a joke-by-joke level, at times wandering aimlessly and eventually running down like a windup toy.
Besides the conceit of entering John Malkovich's head, the film also offers us the sight of an office building with a 7-1/2th floor (half as high as a regular office floor, of course), not to mention a boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who apologizes for his non-existent speech impediment and thanks other characters for 'pretending' they don't notice it. Especially amusing is that the characters easily accept the fantasy element, which allows the film to zip along without wasting time looking for 'rational' explanations. This straight-faced approach makes the events more funny than they would have been if played for broad laughs
Okay, that's what's right with the movie. So what's wrong? Basically, neither writer Charlie Kaufman nor director Spike Jonze really thought their premise through to an interesting conclusion. They riff off the idea, like musicians improvising around a theme, and the result is very much like an improvised melody: filled with flashes of brilliance but often formless, without a strong structure that makes the individual moments add up to more than the sum of the parts.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) expresses a breathless but fleeting fascination with the philosophical implications of being able to enter someone else's mind and body, but he almost immediately abandons his interest, as does the film. Instead, the situation is played for easy laughs. Schwartz and Maxine (Catherine Keener), the office tart he finds so attractive, begin selling tickets after hours to people who want to escape from their boring lives into someone else's. Schwartz's wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) takes the trip down the tunnel, whereupon Maxine seduces Malkovich. This results in a weird love triangle, with both husband and wife vying for the same woman, who is interested only in Lotte, and only when she's inside Malkovich. Craig takes his revenge, tying up his wife and taking her place in the actor's body. Being a puppeteer somehow enables him to take control and direct the actions of his host body. When Maxine discovers the deception, far from being outraged, she is fascinated. Craig soon learns how to extend his power so that he is permanently ensconced in the head of the hapless actor.
This allows the real John Malkovich to strut his acting muscle, doing a dead-on impersonation of Cusack, but it also grinds the story to a halt. (If you're a fan of Cusack, too bad for you, because he disappears from the film.) And once Craig is in possession of Malkovich's body, the fun drains out of the premise. As if realizing this, Kaufman's script belatedly drags in a 'time lock' plot device. It turns out that Dr. Lester is not really Dr. Lester but the company's founder, Captain Mertin, who used the portal to enter Lester's body. In effect, he has discovered a method of immortality, by jumping from body to body at just the right time; otherwise, the portal will shift, and Mertin would be deposited into a new recipient before the appropriate timetrapped, able to watch and experience but unable to take control.
Considering how daft and selfish all these people are, it's hard to care about the outcome, but the film proceeds to play out this plot device as if we were in the grip of genuine suspense. Lester and his friends (whom he plans to take with him into Malkovich) kidnap Maxine, who is pregnant with Malkovich's child, and threaten to killer her if Craig refuses to abandon Malkovich. While Craig hesitates, a frustrated, jealous Lotte tries to kill Maxine. Craig finally relinquishes control of Malkovich, but finds that Maxine and Lotte have, incredibly, reconciled and want nothing to do with him. Not realizing that Lester and company have triumphantly taken up residence inside Malkovich, Craig vows to go back inside the actor. An epilogue, set seven years later, shows us that Maxine and Lotte are living happily ever after, while Craig is trapped inside the mind of Lotte's daughter, who turns out to be Mertin's next target.
This ending is, quite simply, terrible. Maxine has shown little emotional interest in anyone, so it's impossible to buy the idea she has fallen in love with Lotte; all that ever interested her before was having sex with a man hosting a female mind. Equally incredibly, Maxine claims her child is really Lotte's (meaning that Lotte was inside Malkovich at the time of conception), although how she can be so sure is not made clear.
Even worse is the idea that being trapped inside Maxine's daughter is somehow an appropriate punishment for Craig. Sure, he did some rotten things, but he is hardly the worst of the bad lot on display here. Mertin, the real villain of the piece, is let totally off the hook. At one point, Lotte actually praises him for being kind and understanding; it seems never to occur to her (or to the filmmakers, for that matter) that this man exists by stealing the lives of helpless, innocent people. The idea, of course, is horrifying, but the film ignores this, instead leaving us with the thought of Craig's imprisonment, as if he's gotten what he deserved.
What kind of statement is the film making? That it's bad to try to live your life through someone else, instead of simply being yourself? Well, okay, but then why is Mertin's transgression ignored while Craig's is punished? Why is Craig's sacrifice (abandoning Malkovich to save Maxine) not rewarded? Why are we supposed to consider the thought of Maxine and Lotte together as a happy ending? Why are we not supposed to care about what will happen to Maxine's daughter?
Ultimately, you can't have it both ways: either we care about the characters, or we don't. The detached tone of this film for the most part assumes we don't. This works, because it allows us to laugh at situations that would otherwise be unpleasant, to say the least. Part of the film's success depends upon the opacity of the real John Malkovich; we know so little about him personally that the film can present him on screen as a recognizable star without our immediately identifying with him and sympathizing with his plight. This freedom allows him to play himself without our ever knowing whether he's sticking to reality or not. The result is that he comes across as somehow less real than the fictional characters, and we can enjoy the film without feeling distressed.
Had the film managed to maintain this tone throughout, it might have been a complete success. Ultimately, however, it succumbs to the temptation to adopt traditional storytelling devices, like audience identification. Once we've been asked to identify with the characters, we can't enjoy seeing unpleasant fates befall them. The inventiveness of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH takes it a long way toward greatness. There is much in it that is enjoyable and amusing. But its weak attempt at storytelling robs the film of a conclusion worthy of its better moments. See it anyway, and enjoy the good parts. But don't let the chorus of critical praise fool you into thinking you're seeing a flawless masterpiece.Gramercy: October 29 (exclusive), November 5 (wide). Rated R. 112 minutes. Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Starring John Cusack, John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place.