Being John Malkovich
USA 1999, dir.Spike Jonze, stars John Cusack, Catherine Keener
Where to begin? Being John Malkovich isn’t just one of the best films of the last year, or the last ten years, but one of the top dozen or so ever made. I can’t think of a more impressive debut by a director, and I’m not overlooking Badlands, Blood Simple, or Citizen Kane. In terms of sustained originality and audacity, there has never been anything like Malkovich before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be a complete one-off, a film from another dimension, a two-hour trip into an impossible alternate universe. In fifty years’ time, our descendents may well be as startled and impressed as we are today.
A synopsis: struggling puppeteer John Cusack takes a job with a mysterious company located between floors in a New York skyscraper. By accident, he discovers a small, Alice In Wonderland type door behind a filing cabinet. Entering the door, he is shot forward down a weird tunnel… and finds he has entered the head of John Malkovich, the actor. For a while he shares the unwitting Malkovich’s sensory experiences, until Cusack is somehow ejected, falling through the sky and landing on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike road. This is about half an hour into the film, and from here on in things start to get considerably weirder, bringing in Cusack’s dowdy wife Cameron Diaz, and his glamorous colleague Catherine Keener, who both enter the ‘Malkovich portal.’
Being John Malkovich is a triumphant example of an amazing concept for a film translating into a successful script, and then making it to the screen pretty much intact. Director Spike Jonze’s work in advertising and pop video was often phenomenal – the Sprite ‘Sun Fizz’ advert was his, as was Daft Punk’s ‘Da Funk’ video – and on this evidence he’s got a remarkable future in film-making ahead of him. He handles the way-out material in a perfect deadpan manner, never artificially cranking up the visuals but playing it neutral and only occasionally letting rip with set-pieces. Supreme among these are 1) Malkovich enters his own ‘portal’ and discovers a surreal Malkovich world and 2) a spoof TV report on Malkovich’s new career in puppetry featuring Brad Pitt’s finest – and shortest – screen appearance.
Being John Malkovich must be seen to be believed. In fact, for anyone remotely interested in the possibilities of cinema, it must be seen several times. It is, by any measure, a staggering achievement. Problem is, you may never feel able to sit through an ordinary film ever again.
14th March 2001
For the review of Spike Jonze next picture Adaptation. click here
For films rated 9 and 10 check out the Hall of Fame
by Neil Young