Being John Malkovich [Blu-Ray]
Director : Spike Jonze
Screenplay : Charlie Kaufman
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1977
Stars : John Cusack (Craig Schwartz), Cameron Diaz (Lotte Schwartz), Catherine Keener (Maxine), Orson Bean (Dr. Lester), Mary Kay Place (Floris), John Malkovich (John Horatio Malkovich), Charlie Sheen (Charlie), W. Earl Brown (Erroll)
Being John Malkovich, a hilariously perverse riff on love triangles, identity, and fame, is about exactly what the title suggests: It is quite literally about being John Malkovich. But, at the same time, it isn’t. The idea of actually being John Malkovich (who should be given some kind of special award for having the good sense—and good sense of humor—to allow his fascinating identity to be both explored and exploited here) is about much more than just the offbeat character actor. The existential allure of being someone other than yourself is the primary theme driving the film, which is all too apt for a postmodern world of changing personal, sexual, and public identities.
We are first introduced to Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), an out-of-work marionette puppeteer in New York City (“Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate,” he complains). His wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), is a frizzy-headed animal lover who keeps a virtual zoo in their apartment (including a depressed chimpanzee who needs psychoanalysis to deal with repressed childhood memories). Strange beginning, indeed, but it soon gets even stranger. Desperate for work, Craig reluctantly takes a job as a file worker at Lester Corp., a company that exists on the 7½ floor of a downtown Manhattan office building. That's right—the 7½ floor, which means that it is literally only half a floor, so everyone who works there has to walk stooped over. Lester Corp. is owned by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), an oddball older gent whose ramblings about his sexual fantasies are oddly endearing. It is while working there that Craig happens upon a secret doorway behind a filing cabinet. Curious, he crawls into the passageway and finds that he is sucked down a tunnel and winds up inside John Malkovich, where he is able to see, feel, and hear everything that Malkovich does. Unfortunately, it only lasts for about 15 minutes, at which time he is summarily spit out and lands by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Things get complicated when Craig tells his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), a narcissistic, sarcastic executive on whom he has an unrequited crush, about the tunnel. Maxine, ever the shameless opportunist, suggests they make money off it by charging people $200 to live 15 minutes as John Malkovich. Things are complicated even further when Lotte tries it out and discovers that living inside a man’s body has opened up her secret, repressed desire to be a man (“Don’t stand in the way of my actualization as a man!” she demands when Craig suggests it is only a phase). And, if that weren’t complicated enough, Maxine finds that she has fallen in love with Lotte, but only through John Malkovich. Thus, for Maxine to have sex with Lotte, she must do it while Lotte is in John Malkovich. Get it?
If you don’t, don’t worry. The movie makes infinitely more sense on screen than it does on the page. Director Spike Jonze, who was making his directorial debut after a successful career creating inventive music videos, and first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) make the lunatic story surprisingly palatable with wicked verve and a unique sense of comic timing. They keep Being John Malkovich constantly on the edge of being both a parody of life and a parody of itself. The only time they really risk tipping the scales is when they allow a small parade of actual Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Andy Dick) to make brief cameos in order to heighten the sensation of bizarre reality. The best of these is a fairly substantial role for Charlie Sheen, who does a self-deprecating riff on his own tarnished star persona (which is even more amusing a decade and multiple public-relations meltdowns later).
However, unlike some of Terry Gilliam’s excellent but often overindulgent fantasies (to which the film clearly owes a nod), Jonze and Kaufman never let this one get out of control. There are moments of complete, lunatic mania—such as when Malkovich goes down the tunnel himself and lands in a world in which everyone has his face and the only word they can say is “Malkovich”—but it is always tightly controlled. Jonze proves to be an excellent comedic director, both in the general physical comedy and in the larger-than-life moments of social satire. It has a jaunty, improvised feel despite its controlling structure.
Jonze also allows his performers a great deal of freedom in their respective roles. Cusack plays the downtrodden (anti)hero with long, stringy hair and a five-day beard, and you may be surprised at how downcast this usually upbeat actor can be. Diaz is almost unrecognizable as the homely Lotte, frazzled locks and all. And, best of all, is Malkovich, who plays not only himself, but also his body being controlled by others inside him. It must have been a demanding, rigorous project to play yourself when your persona is the core of every joke. But, Malkovich is obviously in on the joke, so when Jonze stages an especially side-splitting chase scene through Malkovich’s tortured subconscious—which includes episodes of childhood humiliation and a fetish for sniffing women’s underwear—you can laugh guilt-free because you know everyone else, including those on screen, are laughing with you.
|Being John Malkovich Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray|
|Being John Malkovich is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 15, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 4K 1080p transfer of Being John Malkovich, which was supervised by director Spike Jonze and cinematographer Lance Acord, was taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored and color corrected. It marks a substantial improvement over the previously available DVD, which has been around since 2000. The transfer handles the film’s various visual palettes very well, from the dark, cramped interiors of Craig and Lotte’s apartment, to the industrial gray blah-ness of the Lester Corp. office. The image is a bit softer and less detailed than you might expect, although it exudes a nicely maintained filmlike appearance that has not been diminished in the slightest by some digital retouching. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack was taken from the original 6-track magnetic master and digitally restored. It sounds excellent, with great clarity and a number of vigorous surround effects, particularly when characters are pulled through the tunnel into Malkovich’s mind.|
|When the specs were first announced, fans of the film were rightly concerned that the supplements would be all postmodern non-sequitors, glib inside jokes, and pseudo-analysis, and while there is some of that to be had, much of it is quite serious. The 57 minutes of selected-scene audio commentary were recorded not by anyone who actually worked on the film, but rather by filmmaker Michel Gondry, who is described as “Jonze’s friend and competitor.” Gondry’s heavily French-accented remarks are quite rambling at times, but there is some real insight to be found throughout. All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set is a fairly straightforward 33-minute behind-the-scenes documentary by filmmaker Lance Bangs, which he culled from hours of footage. The overall sense one gets from the documentary is that the film was a lot of fun to work on, even when (or perhaps especially when) Jonze had to double Catherine Keener running down some stairs after she hurt her leg. Bangs also contributes a new video interview with Jonze in which he goes through a series of photographs he took on-set, and An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering, a short 7-minute documentary about the real-life marionette puppeteer who worked on the film. Interestingly, one of the most honest supplements is a 27-minute interview with John Malkovich by humorist John Hodgman, which develops into a fascinating discussion on the intertwined nature of celebrity and technology and how much they have both changed in the decade since the film’s release. Also on the disc are the two films we see within the film, 7½ Floor Orientation and “American Arts & Culture” Presents John Horatio Malkovich: “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”, as well as a theatrical trailer and several TV spots. The insert booklet is the only unapologetic bit of true postmodern ridiculousness, as it features an entirely fabricated conversation between Jonze and loquacious pop-culture critic Perkus Tooth, who is actually a fictional character from Jonathan Letham’s 2009 novel Chronic City.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures and The Criterion Collection