Insane in the Membrane
Being John Malkovich Is Weird and Wonderful
Call a film "review-proof" and usually what you're characterizing is a mammoth Star Wars-style blockbuster that will put butts in the seats no matter how much the critics whine and carp. But once in a very great while the phrase applies to a movie so startlingly original, so far beyond anything you've ever seen or might expect, that a humble reviewer is rendered nearly mute, reduced to utterances like, "Hummina, hummina, hummina, jeez, this is a really somethin' else."
In the case of Being John Malkovich, that "something else" is nearly impossible to explain, so relating a few random plot points is probably the best way to give a feel for a movie that's one-third tale of frustrated puppeteer artistry, one-third hot lesbian love story featuring Cameron Diaz (bet that got your attention), one-third meditation on the role of celebrity, and one-third psychedelic thrill ride. OK, that's four-thirds, but in the world of Being John Malkovich, those fractions add up. And I haven't even mentioned the traumatized chimpanzee and Charlie Sheen, whom, I hasten to add, are not the same character and are not, thank heavens, a couple.
There are a lot of couples in this movie, beginning with scraggly haired, bleary-eyed Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) and his wife Lotte (Diaz). Craig has given his life to mastering the trade of puppetry (with elaborate marionettes), but he's reduced to performing on street corners for spare change and getting punched in the mouth by angry fathers who don't appreciate his highly sexualized public puppet rendition of the story of Abélard and Héloïse. Lotte works in a pet store and fills their Manhattan apartment with animalsa dog, lizards, birds, and, of course, a chimp.
Despairing, pressed for money, and unable to find "puppeteer" listings in the want ads, Craig answers a listing for a "short-statured, nimble-fingered" file clerk and winds up working on the 71/2th floor of the historic Mertin-Flemmer Building, constructed decades earlier by an Irish ship captain who, having married a midget, wanted his bride to have someplace where she could feel as tall as anyone else. Hence, the 71/2th floor, which, though half the height of the other floors, at least provides "low overhead" for the LesterCorp., Craig's new employer.
And wouldn't you know it, there's a teeny tiny hidden door at LesterCorp. that leads to a slippery, greasy portal intota da!the head of the famous actor John Malkovich, played by . . . John Malkovich. Crawl through the portal and you get to be Malkovich for 15 minutes, seeing the world through his eyes, before being rejected by the actor's body and dumped onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. (Just how that rejection takes place is never explained, but folks come out looking pretty unkempt.)
There is, of course, much potential in such a discovery, including the opportunity to sell tickets for the experience, as Craig's seductive co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) soon points out. But when Lotte tries being John Malkovich and sees Maxine through a man's eyes, she begins to question her sexual identity. Maxine falls for Lotte, but only when she's John, which complicates Craig's lust for Maxine, which leads to Lotte being bound, gagged, and locked in a cage with her chimp.
And then things get complicated and weird.
That's the most winning thing about Being John Malkovich. As soon as you are sure first-time feature director/veteran music-video director Spike Jonze, working from a screenplay by first-time feature writer Charlie Kaufman, can't make things any stranger, he makes them much stranger, in part by introducing Charlie Sheen as Charlie Sheen, John Malkovich's best friend. When Malkovich tells his pal that he's not sure, but he may be under the control of a lesbian witch, Sheen affably replies, "Hot lesbian witches? What could be better?!"
Very little could be better with Being John Malkovichcertainly not the performances Jonze wrings from his actors. Diaz in particular is a revelation as the beaten-down, slightly depressive, frizzy-haired Lottethis is the first role that doesn't ask her to be a beautiful object of desire, and Diaz shows she's a real actor, no small feat playing against Cusack, wonderfully obsessive and self-centered as Craig. Orson Bean, a long way from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, is puckish as Dr. Lester, Craig's employer, who knows the real secret to the portal. Mary Kay Place is her usual droll self as Floris, Dr. Lester's assistant, who has the hots for Craig.
Finally, of course, there's John Malkovich, who, whether doing the violent Dance of Despair, or being absurdly polite to people who say, "You're . . . that actor. I loved you in that . . . jewel-thief movie," is the best John Malkovich one could imagine. In fact, it's safe to say that Being John Malkovich just wouldn't be Being John Malkovich without John Malkovich. That much is certain. Nothing else.