Ever want to be someone else? Now you can.
Sometime around my senior year in high school, I discovered a book that made me the man I am today. Okay, maybe that’s too strong a statement. It changed my life in bizarre, unusual ways, or at least it made me laugh. That book was a slim paperback entitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” It’s about the end of the earth, and the adventures of the lone survivor of that horrible disaster — adventures involving sperm whales and petunias, poetry-reading aliens, spaceships that hang in the air in exactly the same way that a brick doesn’t, and the two-headed president of the universe. To say it’s an absurd tale would be a gross understatement. Finally, I found something that met the match of that dog-eared paperback…a weird little movie entitled Being John Malkovich.
I don’t think many people planned on Being John Malkovich being any sort of a hit, critical or otherwise. Even if it only pulled in $23 million at the box office, critics lauded it — Roger Ebert even chose it as the best film of 1999. Anyone I know who saw it described it in hushed, awed, tones, like they had seen a little green man in their back yard. In my town, though, it only played at this weird little theatre that used to be a mausoleum, so I waited until the DVD found its way into my hands.
What is the enigma that is John Malkovich? Why would someone want to be in his head over, say, Steve Buscemi’s? It makes for a better title, at least. Malkovich falls in that middle area of B-tier Hollywood talent: he’s not a bit-part character actor, but on the other hand he’s not a headlining star…which isn’t to say he isn’t a fine actor, because he is, and an extremely self-assured one to be able to play, if not himself, then a character who shares his face and name (actually, his real middle name is Gavin; in the movie it is Horatio). Malkovich’s roles have run the gamut from king (The Messenger) to criminal (Con Air), doctor (Mary Reilly) to mentally handicapped (Of Mice And Men). He’s received Academy Award nominations for portraying a blind man in Places In The Heart (his first major screen role) and a presidential assassin in In The Line Of Fire (he was robbed of that award…Tommy Lee Jones won for a role anyone could have played in The Fugitive). He received a Golden Globe nomination for his role in the made-for-television Heart Of Darkness, playing Kurtz, the same iconic role as Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (which brought the novel “Heart Of Darkness” out of its African setting into the jungles of Vietnam).
Being John Malkovich begins with a tale far removed from its titular star. Craig Schwartz (John Cusask — Say Anything…, Grosse Point Blank, Con Air) is an out-of-work puppeteer (as he says, “Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate”). He shares a cramped New York City apartment with his dowdy wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, who you’d never think would be called “dowdy” — The Mask, My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary), and her menagerie of exotic animals brought home from her job in a pet store. Down on his luck, Craig decides to apply for a job. His nimble fingers make him ideally suited for a job as a filing clerk with Lestercorp. In one of the movie’s oftentimes more subtle laughs, Lestercorp is located on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building, sandwiched between two perfectly normal floors.
While filing one afternoon, Craig knocks a file behind a cabinet. Moving the cabinet, he finds that the folder has fallen behind a panel in the wall. Removing the panel, he finds a small door (looking for all the world like something right out of “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”). Behind the door is a slimy tunnel. When Craig climbs through the tunnel, he finds himself magically transported into the head of John Malkovich. His stay lasts fifteen minutes, after which he is summarily dumped along the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Amazed, he shares his discovery with his wife and his devious coworker, Maxine (Catherine Keener — Your Friends and Neighbors, Out of Sight, 8mm). Maxine hatches the plan to sell admission into John Malkovich’s head…and the whole story rushes headlong into absurdity from there.
Being John Malkovich is a bizarre, absurdist movie, but not inaccessible to the average viewer. Its jokes exist at many layers, from the obvious guffaws caused by its dialogue to the sly visual gag of seeing an army of office workers reduced to working while bent over at the waist to accommodate four-foot ceilings. The payoff at the end of the movie may not satisfy all viewers, but I found it very, very fitting (and it won’t spoil anything to mention that Charlie Sheen is involved).
Being John Malkovich is the feature film debut of director Spike Jonze. He filmed it under the banner of Propaganda Films, the production house that has also been the home of David Fincher (the director of Fight Club and Seven) and Simon West (director of Con Air and The General’s Daughter). Previous to his move into moviemaking, Jonze was a director of cutting-edge music videos (such as the Beastie Boy’s “Sabotage” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”). I hope that Being John Malkovich is just the first in a long line of quirky, fun movies from Jonze.
While Being John Malkovich was released by USA Films (who also released the critically acclaimed Topsy-Turvy and the critically panned, and deservedly so, Pitch Black), the DVD was published by Universal. I did not expect a disc of a film that played in arthouse theatres to be all that remarkable, but I was shocked by how impressed I was with the audio and video quality. Video-wise, the picture is near-perfect. It is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Color saturation and accuracy were dead-on. I noticed a minimum of NTSC artifacting, though on an anamorphic display that may not be an issue. The only thing that marred the picture was an occasional white speck. The sound design is a stroke of genius, and it is brought to life in your home theater perfectly. Sadly, I find it difficult to explain. Every time someone enters the portal to John Malkovich, a low-frequency humming noise can be heard. The sound emanates from whichever direction the portal is in relation to the viewer. When someone is in his head, you hear things as if you were in someone’s head. Malkovich’s voice sounds muffled. When he speaks on the phone, it is heard from the channels on that side of his head. It’s brilliant and perfectly executed.
Extras are a little on the thin side, but the ones that are there complement the movie so well only the pickiest of people will mind their brevity. There’s a theatrical trailer, that in typical trailer fashion sums up the movie pretty well. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of surprises. Next, there’s a series of television spots. Only one of them shows any footage from the movie. Two of them seem to have no connection to the movie at all, especially the one that plays like an infomercial for “JM Incorporated” (visit their website, linked at right). In the movie, there are two video segments that are presented as part of the story, and they are included with the extras. One is a history of the 7 1/2 floor of the Merton-Flemmer Building, viewed by Craig as part of his orientation with Lestercorp. The other is entitled “American Arts and Culture Present: John Horatio Malkovich, Dance Of Despair And Disillusionment.” I’m not going to spoil its role in the movie. This being a Spike Jonze movie, there are two “intimate portraits” (like the one on the acting process he did with Ice Cube on the Three Kings disc). One is on the art of puppeteering. Here you get to see real marionettes and puppeteers in action. The other portrait is on the art of background driving…don’t ask. I suppose in lieu of the much-missed commentary track, there’s an interview with Spike Jonze. As someone on a newsgroup said, the interview alone is worth the price of the disc. Just don’t expect any insights (and if you were wondering if his accent in Three Kings was fake, it’s not). Spike Jonze has also provided a photo album of pictures taken during the shoot. Lastly, there are detailed biographies and filmographies of the major stars, the screenwriter, and the director.
The only bad thing I can say is that the disc comes in a nonstandard keep case. It’s one of the sort with a six-tabbed hub in the center that holds the disc so tightly you have to twist and pull and bend to pry it out of the case.
If you haven’t seen Being John Malkovich and you’re not the sort who buys a disc sight-unseen, run to your local rental outlet and rent it immediately. If you’re anyone else, buy the freakin’ disc right away. You won’t regret it.
You also will not regret visiting the movie’s official website and the JM Incorporated website linked at right. The official site is packed with funny stuff, most of it not even related to the movie but sharing its sense of humor (and a perverse love of soap). I read through the entire site in a rather slow two-hour stretch at work one morning, and I have never laughed so hard at a website. At the JM Incorporated site, you’ll find no mention of the film, and only one mention of John Malkovich (“Apparently Mr. Malkovich is a well known actor of stage and screen”).