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BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
Starring: John Cusack & Cameron Diaz
Genre: Comedy / Fantasy / Sci-Fi
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Rating: Rated PG-13.
Video Release: 01 May 2000
Tagline: "Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can."
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a man with a dream. He yearns to become a famous puppeteer but, forced by economic necessity, finds employment as a file clerk. One day, he accidentally discovers a hidden door behind a filing cabinet that leads down a dank tunnel. This tunnel, in actuality, is a birth canal-like portal into the head of actor John Malkovich. Whoever crawls into this portal gets to experience 15 minutes of living inside the body of the famed actor.
Schwartz’s co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), turns this discovery into a capitalist venture and begins charging people $200 a pop to experience life through the "Malkovich-cam." It’s not long before Maxine, Schwartz, and wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) begin using this portal for other agendas as well. Malkovich uncovers this "amusement ride" enterprise and demands they cease operation and close up the portal. Schwartz has other ideas and the battle for control of "the man" begins.
From that synopsis, it doesn’t seem as if Being John Malkovich is all that bizarre -- but it is. This Alice in Wonderland spoof is hard to take very seriously because of all the surreal events taking place. An example of the absurdity would be where Schwartz works: The Lester Corp., located on the 7-1/2th floor. To reach this floor, one has to stop the elevator midway between the seventh and eighth, jam a crowbar into the elevator doors to part them and viola -- you’re on the 7-1/2th floor. A floor where the ceilings are a mere five feet high, in which all occupants must walk around in a hunched position liked debased primates.
Not far-fetched enough? How about Lotte and Maxine’s relationship? Maxine, the snide femme fatale, finds herself attracted to Lotte -- but Lotte has to be in Malkovich’s body before any interaction can take place. As for Lotte, the Malkovich ride is beginning to make her question her own sexual identity; not the hackneyed "straight vs. gay" dilemma but the "Am I a woman or man?" question. Or how about Lotte’s chimpanzee? Her chimp has flashbacks of a childhood trauma in the jungle but overcomes them (thanks to a hooky f.b.) and helps Lotte escape. Escape? Yes, Schwartz locks up his wife in the chimp cage because HE loves Maxine too -- but Maxine only finds him attractive when he’s in the body of you-know-who.
Indeed, sheer lunacy reigns in most of this film’s 112 minutes. Two of the more interesting sequences: (1) Malkovich experiences his own portal. He enters a world where everyone looks like him and the only language possible is...wanna guess??...the word Malkovich, that is repeated incessantly. (2) Lotte chases Maxine through the portal with a gun. They run through Malkovich’s past like an old movie reel, each time hopping into a different location at a different time. Each scene shows Malkovich’s non-star studded side of various past disgraces and failures.
While Being John Malkovich brims with darkly funny situations, the characters themselves lack any depth. Cusack and Diaz are almost unrecognizable in their roles and the chemistry between them is non-existent. Lotte seems more in love with her budding Noah’s Ark (their house is full of animals) and Schwartz is devoted to his puppet making devices. The puppetry in the film is actually top-notched and the whole puppeteer analogy is a very clever one. When Schwartz "takes over" Malkovich’s body indefinitely, he is a living puppet master as he manipulates the very strings of Malkovich’s existence.
This is where the irony comes to play. Malkovich leads one of the drollest existence’s possible. We witness him taking showers, eating toast, and ordering merchandise from a catalog. Hardly the stuff Entertainment Tonight is made of but it is the film's one saving grace, for it touches on the empty nature of modern fame and the reality of stardom.
While people may know a face and name, they aren't always familiar with one's work. There’s a running gag about Malkovich playing a "jewel thief" in some unknown film -- a role which he continually protests he’s never played. Also, by seeing Malkovich eat and bathe, we are shown that a star's life is not some non-stop earth-shattering existence. Actors, even the biggest names in Hollywood, are people too. They suffer illness, question the meaning of life, and do the dishes just like everyone else.
A favorite for many a critic, Being John Malkovich touches on some serious topics -- in its own wacky way. Unfortunately while the premise was intriguing, the cast themselves never really clicked. Have to give this one a big "2."
© Terrence J. Brady
The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).