I've talked to many people about writing over the years, and most tend to agree that there are only a limited number of stories. Some say there are twenty four, some twelve, some six, I've even heard one person contend that there are only two general stories that keep getting retold. But not matter how few categories of stories you may think there are in the world, the fact is that Being John Malkovich does not fit into any of them. The debut feature for music video director Spike Jonze and TV writer Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich defies description or characterization.
John Cusack is Craig Schwartz, a depressed puppeteer. He spends his days in a private studio in his apartment, making his puppets act out his self-pitying dramas. His wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) works at a pet store, and literally brings her work home with her. Their apartment is a home for multiple dogs, cats, birds, and even a monkey. As much as she may enjoy the work, it doesn't bring enough money, and despite Craig's insistence that there's no demand for puppeteers "in today's wintry economic climate," he acquiesces and takes a job at a filing company. The company is a little off, however. For one thing, its owner, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), appears to be completely off his rocker, claiming to be over 100 years old due to the ingestion of carrot juice. For another, it resides on the seventh and a half floor of its office building - a mini floor located between floors seven and eight. The ceilings are so low that everyone who works there has to hunch over. On his first day, Craig notices Maxine (Catherine Kenner), and is immediately smitten. However, Maxine will have absolutely nothing to do with him. And that would have been the end of the story, except one day, Craig discovers a small doorway hidden deep in the offices where he works. Curious, he goes inside, and begins to fall down a tube, leading him directly inside of actor John Malkovich. Yes, you read that right, when Craig goes into the hole, he ends up inside John Malkovich's head. Eventually, he gets ejected outside the New Jersey Turnpike. And while this experience certainly could lead to a whole host of philosophical and existential questions, but instead of pondering these, the first thing he does is tell Maxine in an attempt to impress her. And for once she actually responds, deciding to take advantage of the portal to open a business, allowing people access to Malkovich's head...for a fee. Craig can't hide this new venture from Lotte for long, and when she tries it, she comes out a changed woman. It doesn't help that Maxine begins wooing Malkovich while Lotte is inside him, stirring up all kinds of feelings in Lotte. This stirs the jealousy of Craig, who begins to use his skills as a puppeteer to control Malkovich, even against Malkovich's protests.
That synopsis doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what Jonze and Kaufman crammed into Being John Malkovich. The film seems to spin off in a hundred different directions at once, while at the same time always maintaining the core themes and ideas it intends to get across. Charlie Kaufman is a supremely talented writer, and considering he had only done some staff writing for a few TV sketch comedy shows, he seemed to come completely out of nowhere. His script for Malkovich is sharp, witty, poignant, surreal, and touching. Most movies would have focused on one of the ideas on display here, and would have done it either as a straight comedy or a straight drama. Kaufman walked the razor's edge and made the project into something completely unique.
And Spike Jonze does an incredible job realizing Kaufman's words. Jonze has long been praised for his innovative and hilarious music video work. While often music video directors offer nothing but some flash and a lot of quick editing, Spike Jonze is anything but typical. And he's great at interpreting Kaufman's material to the screen with a sure hand. He manages to keep the film anchored so that the audience accepts the utter insanity on the screen, while at the same time having a lot of fun and showing it.
The actors are all phenomenal. John Cusack, who has been known to play down-on-their-luck characters in the past, has never been so doggedly pathetic as he is here. With long greasy hair, glasses, and scraggly beard, he looks like a bum. And he's never played a more meek, downtrodden soul as he does here. In Cusack's hands, Craig goes from mawkish to downright detestable.
And that's nothing compared to the major overhaul Jonze did on Cameron Diaz. Generally considered one of the more beautiful women in Hollywood, here Diaz is made up to look completely frumpy. She's got a huge head of frizzy hair, no make-up, and who knows what other tricks Jonze pulled to uglify her, but it works. You practically cannot recognize her as the stunner from The Mask or Charlie's Angels. But in a world where a pretty girl daring to look ugly is considered an artistic risk, it should be noted that the lack of apparent glamour forces Diaz to stretch her acting muscles, which she does rather well. It's an easy and obvious choice for her most mature performance to date.
Then there's Catherine Keener, who is an absolute dynamo. While she had been in several films and television shows prior to Malkovich, this was clearly her breakout performance. She's cool, sexy, and vivacious. She plays Maxine like a super sex-charged pragmatist, never letting anything phase her. Hell, Maxine initiates half of the more bizarre incidents in the film. Keener doesn't even crack a sweat, relishing the role and the freedom it afforded her. It's rare for an actress to get a role with so much to enjoy on the top, and then deeper layers for her to play as the piece goes on. But that's exactly what Kaufman gave her, and she runs with it.
Finally, there's John Malkovich himself, without whom this movie would never have happened. I don't know what Kaufman or Jonze said to him to convince him to appear in the picture, but thank goodness they did. Malkovich isn't afraid to make fun of himself in the early portions of the movie, and then provides a wonderful performance as he has to play himself under the control of other characters. Seeing John Malkovich in this film is kind of awe-inspiring, giving the whole piece this giant meta fictional universe to exist in. And he was a really good sport for the movie's most outlandish setpiece, when Malkovich enters his own portal and we get to see what awaits him there.
After all is said and done, Being John Malkovich must be experienced. It's not enough to just read about it. Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, John Malkovich and the rest of the cast have crafted something so delicious, so funny, so shocking, so genuinely new that the only way to believe it is to see it with your own eyes. And to all those people who thought all stories are recycled, I think you'll need to have a talk with Mr. Charlie Kaufman.
The HD DVD:
Universal Pictures presents Being John Malkovich in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. The image here is very solid. The color separation is very good, and there are no issues with artifacting. Considering that the film uses drab color palette and somewhat grainy consistency, I thought the transfer did an admirable job of making a clean high definition image that incorporated the film's style instead of trying to steamroll it. There are a few scenes that lose sharpness here and there, and some minor print damage that pops up from time to time, but overall, it's good work.
I was very pleased with the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track on the disc. All of the dialogue is clear and crisp. There's plenty of surround action, and some excellent effects when people are inside of Malkovich. As usual with Universal, my biggest complaint is the lack of a lossless mix.
Universal ports over all of the extras featured on the DVD, but none of them are in HD.
- American Arts Culture Presents - John Horatio Malkovich, Dance of Despair and Disillusionment: The full version of the TV special shown in the film.
- An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering: A semi-humorous, semi-serious look at puppeteering, specifically the puppeteer who created the marionettes used in the film. Also included are audience interviews which could potentially be staged.
- 7 1/2 Floor Orientation: The longer version of the orientation video Craig watches when he gets hired by Lester. Funny stuff.
- An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving: You know how people who go into Malkovich end up getting dumped outside the New Jersey Turnpike? Well, someone has to be driving those cars you see zipping by, and this is a hilarious interview with one of them (although if my suspicions are correct she's actually a Jonze regular).
- Don't Enter Here, There Is Nothing Here: I'll let you discover this one for yourself.
- An Interview With Director Spike Jonze: Jonze gets interviewed while he's driving, and something surprising happens.
- Spike Jonze's Photo Album: Photos taken by the director on the set.
- Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots.
There has never been, nor will there ever again, be a film like Being John Malkovich. Charlie Kaufman truly made something unique and new with his bizarre script, and Spike Jonze did the impossible by bringing it to the screen while keeping all the qualities Kaufman had originally imbued it with. The acting by John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Makovich is all stellar. This HD DVD has strong picture and sound, and all the DVD extras included. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.