Being John Malkovich

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Being John Malkovich is ingenious, different, beautifully directed and acted, and also very, very funny. The story is surreal but it is never slapstick. Spike Jonze’s direction seems to punch all the right buttons. Laughs come when they should, and the story zigs and zags but never sags. Although it’s clear within a few moments that the screenplay was probably written by a crazy person, there are very few moments when Charlie Kaufman’s plot doesn’t feel like it might be actually possible. All right, the ending is contrived, but what do you expect from a story that takes place on the 7-1/2th floor?

That 7-1/2th floor is a stroke of genius. When Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), puppeteer, is forced by economic necessity to seek employment as a file clerk, he is told by his prospective employer that his company is on the 7-1/2th floor. Naturally when Craig arrives he finds no 7-1/2th floor, only 7 and 8. Eventually he does wedge his way into this strange floor-between-floors, where he finds all the ceilings are necessarily quite low (“It saves overhead, boy!”). Everyone in the office has to walk around absurdly hunched over, in a Lewis Carroll kind of way. We know immediately that the world we are about to see will bear about the same resemblance to reality as Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole.

Many issues are touched on here. When Craig’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) discovers that she has as strong an attraction to Craig’s office mate Maxine (Catherine Keener) as Craig does, both husband and wife begin to plot how to seduce her. One wonderful scene has the three sitting on the sofa, while Maxine opines that “people really have to go for whatever they truly desire.” The minute she says that, she is jumped on by both Craig and Lotte. Lotte becomes convinced she is getting in touch with her inner man – and goes around saying things like “Suck my dick, Craig!” – but that’s only for a while. Sexuality, fidelity, romance, secrecy – everyone’s world changes the moment John Malkovich sets foot on the stage.

Malkovich looks like he always does: cool, and menacing. We won’t mention the secret, but Craig discovers how to allow anyone to become John Malkovich for fifteen minutes at a time. Poor Malkovich, attempting to study Shakespeare, becomes inhabited by loonies. There is a magical stretch when Malkovich tries to discover what everybody else is seeing when they are him. He enters a room of nothing but Malkoviches, whose only dialogue is “Malkovich? Malkovich.” The scene is sharp like an acid-flashback, hysterically funny, and is sure to be one of the most talked-about segments of the season.

Jonze coaxes excellent performances out of everyone. The two best supporting roles are turned in by Mary Kay Place as Floris, the secretary with the hearing defect; and Charlie Sheen as Charlie,

Malkovich’s L.A. buddy with the worst comb-over since Secretariat. And since Craig Schwartz is a puppeteer, there is also some amazing puppetry in evidence. The film opens with a beautiful puppet exhibition, and in the end the story harkens back to puppetry’s central theme: who is the puppet and who is pulling the strings?

The trio of Cusack, Diaz and Keener run away with this film, with the hapless John Malkovich as their hysterical foil. Jonze and Kaufman are said to be working on another project right now. It would be best if they finish quickly, before the little puppets in the white coats come lock them up and throw away the key.