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Being John Malkovich (1999)


Man that's incredible fan art!
Man that's incredible fan art!

Genre: Comedy Fantasy Drama

Starring: John Cusack (High Fidelity • Say Anything), Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About MaryGangs of New York), John Malkovich (Dangerous LiaisonsOf Mice and Men (1992))

Directed By: Spike Jonze (Adaptation.Where the Wild Things Are)

Overview: While working a new job as a filing clerk, a puppeteer finds a portal into actor John Malkovich’s mind.

Being John Malkovich begins in the fantastical world – a passionate puppet show where a man thrashes about a room in despair. The agile skill and the rich emotion of the piece sucks us right in, properly introducing us to the man pulling the strings, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), an out of work puppeteer who lives with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) in a New York basement apartment. He has a workshop for his puppets, she has a slew of pets - including a chimpanzee who’s a worthy character by his own right. Lotte suggests to Craig that he look for paying work, and so he makes his way to the 7½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building to get a job as a nimble-fingered filing clerk. There he meets Maxine, an attractive, abrasive, self-centered woman with whom he immediately falls in love. Not only is his workplace a space made strange by low ceilings and weird characters, but behind some filing cabinets is a tiny door - a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich. From here we explore a man, his psyche and the psyches of those who cross the portal’s threshold.

Yes that's a marionette of him, duh.
Yes that's a marionette of him, duh.

Where Being John Malkovich takes us is odd, imaginative and original while still being accessible to the masses. The fantasy isn’t avant-garde and convoluted in a David Lynch way. As I watched, I couldn’t help but liken it to having an ethereal Michel Gondry quality. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, the fantastical elements of Being John Malkovich do something to our minds that allow us to understand everything that’s going on, while keeping just a hint of the haze that comes with fantastical elements. Only after I looked up Being John Malkovichs writer, Charlie Kaufman, did I realize he’s the very same Charlie Kaufman who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He’s also written Synecdoche, New York, and the screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – all films with that wonderfully strange sense of fantasy rooted in this real world.

John Cusack plays Craig as an impassioned dweeb, a man who shines through his art, but is just a touch inept in the life-skills department. It’s no surprise when he gets punched in the face for doing a lascivious yet brilliantly artistic puppet show in front of a child. Cameron Diaz does of a wonderful job of making Lotte look plain and ‘off’. Catherine Keener’s Maxine is a typical bitch and a busy catalyst for the wildness that happens throughout the film. The shining performance, as hoped, comes from John Malkovich himself, played as an otherwise calm and courteous man thrust into a strange situation. Add some outrageously ballistic secondary characters, and Spike Jonze keeps Being John Malkovich’s mood pleasantly off-kilter.

Charlie Kaufman’s script is magical. Though billed as a Comedy, Being John Malkovich downplays much of the humour. There's elements of darkness and madness and passion that make this a little bit more profound, that make it memorable, that make it terrific from beginning to end. But what I believe will keep this movie timeless and unique is the work of puppeteer Phillip Huber. His marionettes combined with his skill are a wonder to behold.

And check out this production still!

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 84% (Get In His Head)

It’s no surprise that Being John Malkovich is one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I remember those days back in 1999 when it was a film phenom, extremely hyped up but making good on its promise. It was original back then and it’s still as impressive today.

One final note on Phillip Huber: you can see more of his work in the recent Oz, the Great and Powerful.

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