Being John Malkovich (1999)

D: Spike Jonze
S: John Cusack, John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz

Amusing mainstream surrealist film which is refreshingly off-beat for about two thirds of the running time, but too melodramatic too often to quite escape the boundaries of convention. The premise and execution are terrific to begin with. Embittered puppeteer John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank) takes a job as a filing clerk in a strange office with low ceilings and discovers a portal which leads to John Malkovich. If surrealism was about an attempt to get inside people's heads, Charlie Kaufman's script is an hilariously literal translation of the concept, which, surprisingly, does not result in a one-joke movie. There are plenty of complications, gags, and even dramatic scenes which raise questions about power in contemporary relationships. Cusack, it seems, is also attracted to a co-worker (Catherine Keener), who while she wants nothing to do with him personally or sexually, is only too eager to exploit his discovery for commercial gain. The couple begin charging people $200 a time to literally 'be' John Malkovich for fifteen minutes (fifteen minutes of fame?), which causes all kinds of resultant perplexity best left to an actual viewing, but which bring the interpersonal relationships between Cusack, Keener, and Cusack's wife, Cameron Diaz (There's Something About Mary, Any Given Sunday) to boiling point.

This is a movie about control, more precisely about the lack of it, or the illusion of having it, which defines the (post)modern world. This is an appropriate surrealist theme, providing a useful springboard from which to question and subvert the moral order of bourgeois society. Some of the time, Kaufman's script does this. There are some nice jabs at the mores of marriage, love, and desire, and at the schism between capitalism and creativity (and the hypocrisy of trying to combine them). There's plenty of wit in the characters and dialogue, and lots of surreal detail including the pet-populated apartment where Cusack and Diaz live (watch for the scene where a chimp has a meaningful flashback), and the company secretary who assumes everyone has a speech impediment. There are also lots of wonderful visual particulars such as the half-sized office, a stilted corporate video which explains this, and the displays of puppeteering which provide an obvious pointer to the thematic centre. Director Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord have fun creating a world which, while mostly representative of our own, is tweaked just enough to keep the audience on the edge of a dream, as any surrealist film should. Yet when it comes to providing resolution, the film treads an uneasy path between standard-issue screaming melodrama and narrative subversion. Its sense of closure is finally all too literal and cozily complete, which while satisfying enough on one level, actually proves disappointingly routine.

Admittedly, this is a larger problem than the film itself can address. It has been a long time since a surrealist film was so completely subversive that it panicked governments. The days of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau are long gone, and the indie/'art house' climate of the late twentieth century is conducive to a certain level of cleverness and challenge, but within the established limits of a self-satisfied new orthodoxy of apathy and assimilation. Along with American Beauty, Fight Club, and Rushmore, Being John Malkovich is a contemporary surrealist film, in that its polemical force has been dissipated by postmodernism. Lacking the sense of political commitment which defines a truly subversive work of art, it is difficult for such films to be much more than a means of asking some pointed questions which become submerged in an excess of meaning. Though multiple references abound, sub-themes kick in all over the place, in-jokes run riot, and the filmmaker and the audience can enjoy plenty of coy chuckles, the main thrust of the film is relatively narrow. Despite some hysterical shouting matches between the three primary leads which question the status of modern masculinity, bourgeois society itself remains relatively untouched (and untouchable). Despite a coda which implies the the reins of power are still in the hands of an unworthy upper crust, it is more likely to promote smug smiles than a desire for rebellion.

There is much to admire nonetheless, and the film does keep you glued to the screen at least during its initial stages. Cusack is excellent in the lead, and does a remarkable job of creating and sustaining a character who is unlikable but sympathetic (like the leads in American Beauty, Fight Club, and Rushmore). Diaz is also impressive (and almost unrecognisable for a few minutes), and Keener radiates a kind of Linda Fiorentino-like femme fatale vibe which the script has fun playing with. John Malkovich himself turns up fairly frequently, and one must presume enjoyed people literally challenging his sense of self. Of course the frequent references to his status as one of America's most important contemporary actors must have played a part in his accepting the job. It is entertaining to watch these actors ply their craft, and there are a number of genuine laughs in the script. Whether or not this adds up to a great work of cinema is another question.

Most people will either find the film very entertaining or very baffling. The former will probably not hear a word spoken against it, the latter might find a second viewing will untangle many of its knots (L'Age d'Or it is not). The movie is enjoyable, and there are some moments when it hits all the right notes. It is not entirely consistent in this however, and this is disappointing. Still, sometimes half a loaf is better than none, and it has the merit of being the most genuinely imaginative of the 1999 American surrealist films, if not the one with the most impact (Fight Club), class (American Beauty), or the most beguiling (Rushmore). Worth a look, if not to all tastes.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.