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In this episode: Being John Malkovich

What a brilliant, fantastic, funny movie. Everything about this film is top-notch: the acting, the directing, the writing, the story. It's funny with some pathos and hilarious with some poignancy... but it's not too pathotic or poignetic! (Don't shoot me for making up those words.)

Being John Malkovich is what you get when a writer doesn't get lazy. Most of the dramatic turns in the movie are mind-blowingly original, taking twists you never would imagine. Expecting the characters to behave a certain way? Think again. They will surprise you. Think you know what will transpire when __________ happens? Forget it. You have no idea. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman not only can write his way out of a paper bag, he can write himself into another one, then back out again. Most movies try to create tension by having characters withhold information, despite numerous opportunities to speak up and set things straight. Kaufman doesn't chicken out and fall for this kind of thing. His story comes not from the forced withholding of information, but the sharing of it. Let me illustrate without giving away too much...

The main plot point of the movie--don't worry, it's in the trailers--is that grungy, pathetic, but talented puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers a small door behind a filing cabinet in his office. Behind that door is a tunnel, and through that tunnel is a link, a portal, to John Malkovich's head. Craig works with a cold fish named Maxine (Catherine Keener) to make money off this amazing portal. Craig has got a thing for Maxine, but Craig is married. Now, in a normal movie, the driving plot element, aside from the Malkovich angle, would be Craig trying to keep his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), ignorant of what he's discovered and why he's working so late at the office. This deception would be dragged out as much as possible until Lotte found out about both the portal and Maxine. Yawn. Sitcom city.

However, what Charlie and first-time feature director but long-time video director Spike Jonze (he also acts in Three Kings!) do is allow Craig to tell the truth. He does conceal his feelings for Maxine, of course, as any married man would do at first, but he's honest with Lotte about his discovery and how he hopes to make money with it. Instead of Lotte then running around ignorant, trying to discover why her husband is acting so peculiar, Lotte is brought into the story. And let me tell you, the conflicts that arise from her knowing about the portal are enough to fill 63 sitcoms. Lotte becomes an active part of the movie, not a wasted sideline.

Being John Malkovich is filled with such moments, where Charlie and Spike could have chosen an easy solution to the conflicts the script presented. They did not, so the movie is keen and sharp and smart.

[Okay, I'll give you a bigger example of where the script doesn't cop out, but I suggest you not read this until you've seen the movie or unless you just don't mind having part of the plot ruined. Now, of course, Malkovich finds out there's something wrong in his head and he finds out about the portal and how it's being used, but this happens sooner and without the sitcom wrangling you may expect. As you see Malkovich make his way to Craig and Maxine's office, the one thing you can predict is that Malkovich will travel into his own portal. WHAT WILL HAPPEN? By now, you know it will be nothing predictable. The anticipation had me stamping my feet in excitement. (Those of you who know me well know this rarely happens. Those of you who don't know me so well shouldn't be frightened off by this behavior.) Oh, God, what have Charlie and Spike come up with for this prime moment? What does happen when a man goes through his own portal? If the anticipation was too much, the outcome was even more too much. I never in a hundred million years would have divined what happens then, when Malkovich ends up in his own head, and I'm thankful because it is a pleasing, rich, and hilarious payoff. I hate to use this word again, but it's brilliant!]

The cast is fantastic. John Cusack is different than normal here as the slouchy artiste. Craig likes puppeteering because it lets him control another "person," but he's so weak and pliable that he's the one always being controlled. John portrays this cowering and desperate guy perfectly. Cameron Diaz is marvelous. She is shockingly unglamorous here, so instead of watching how beautiful she is, you watch her act. Lotte is Craig's perfect match, another person wandering through an unimportant life. Giant changes come her way, though, and she becomes a stronger person. Cameron handles these challenges subtly and with a fine touch. She's excellent to watch. Catherine Keener played a stone-cold bitch in Your Friends and Neighbors, and here she is again. I had a hard time telling in this movie how much was acting and how much was Catherine just doing her thing. Maybe it's because she does it so well... Maxine is not a nice woman, and she's rarely not fake, so if I'm letting the character color what I thought of Catherine's acting, she did a better job than perhaps I give her credit for. She was very good, I loved Maxine, but Catherine was not mesmerizing on the screen like John or Cameron or... or that other John!

John Malkovich. What a good sport. I can guarantee you that if this movie had been poorly written, he never would have accepted this role and would have demanded his name and person not be connected with it in any way. But Malkovich saw that it was good, and so he jumped in. And I can not even begin to describe what a brilliant use of a real-life person this is! Malkovich not only has to play himself, but he has to play others as well. It reminds you of why Malkovich is considered such a good actor. Watching him be the outsider on this little portal joke gives you a sort of voyeuristic thrill, but once that's gone (once again, Charlie and Spike don't allow the movie to be about Malkovich being ignorant the entire time), he becomes even more brilliant to watch! It's Malkovich the actor! No, it's Malkovich the possessed! No, it's Malkovich the actor playing Malkovich the actor being possessed! The excitement of it all is too much to try and describe.

The film is full of other absurdist pieces. These are integrated so casually and so confidently that they end up making perfect sense; this created world accepts its loony self, and so the audience does, too. Even more excellent is realizing that John Malkovich is a real person living in our reality, yet here he is living as himself in the movie's reality. That contradiction would be dangerous for a less finely crafted flick, but it's all part of the fun of Being John Malkovich.

No more. I will leave the rest of the movie a mystery so you can discover it all for yourself. Pick your butt off whatever seat it is you're sitting in and go see this movie. NOW! It is too rare to have such an original treat available for big-screen consumption.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz