Being John Malkovich

Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, John Malkovich.
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
November 7, 1999

This year, as with every year, there have been many comedies released through Hollywood and other sources. None of them so far have been truly great, even the best ones falling shy of their potential. Some great films, like American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project, had very funny parts, but could not be fully classified as comedies. A new voice, music video director and Three Kings co-star Spike Jonze, has created an undeniably great comedy with an astounding vision. It's about time.

Puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is having trouble making his artform pay off, and is persuaded by his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), to get a regular job. He finds an ad in the paper for Lestercorp, who needs people with nimble fingers to do mass filing. He ends up in a surreal world that occupies the 7 1/2 floor of an old building. He is hired by the eccentric Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who likes the low ceiling because it reduces overhead. In case things weren't weird enough, he finds a little door behind one of the filing cabinets in his office. There is a tunnel behind it, which is a portal that sucks him into the mind of John Malkovich. After experiencing all the sensations of the actor for about 15 minutes, he is dumped on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

He shares this with Maxine (Catherine Keener), a sexy woman who works in another office on the diminutive floor. She starts a business with him in which they charge people $200 for the experience of being John Malkovich. Some interesting complications ensue, but I don't want to get into them. Suffice it to say that they are incredibly bizarre and funny, and to give them away would spoil the film.

I have no reservations about calling Being John Malkovich the best comedy of the year. No other film in 1999 has made the whole audience (myself included) laugh so hard and consistently throughout. I could probably go on record to say that no other film will come out in the next two months to top it. The direction of Jonze and the writing of Charlie Kaufman (his debut, as well) combine brilliantly to create a surreal world that would make Lewis Carroll proud.

I must admit that I have an obsession with Carroll myself (my homepage is slithy.com, named in honor of his poem "Jabberwocky"). His books about Alice's adventures have inspired surrealists well outside the domain of children's literature. When a film such as this invites comparison to his work, and succeeds at this level, I am quite overjoyed. If you are open to a distorted view of reality (some people aren't, it's nothing to be ashamed of), you absolutely must see this film, and support independent filmmakers who are not afraid to be blindingly original.

If I had to say one thing against this film, it would be the oddly numerous shots in which the boom microphone is visible. This leaves me to come to one of two conclusions: either most of the film was shot in one take, and they didn't bother to reshoot after getting into the cutting room, or Jonze is sick enough to do it on purpose. There are at least four or five shots where you can see it. Whatever the reason, it will remain just one of the many idiosyncrasies of what is one of the best comedies ever made.

Retraction 11/29/99:
I was alerted by a reader that when one sees a boom mike in the frame, it is often the projectionist's fault. She had seen it twice, without ever seeing the mikes. So, I recently had a chance to watch this film again, and no mikes were to be seen. In short, Being John Malkovich is actually a perfect film.


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Being John Malkovich (1999)

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Being John Malkovich (1999) -- VHS
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan