Directing and writing debuts are rarely as successful as Being John Malkovich (1999), which brought filmmaker Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman into the public eye. Years before, the former cut his teeth on some of the decade's best music videos, while the latter scribbled behind the scenes of several sketch comedy shows (including Chris Elliott's underrated Get A Life). Regardless of their career beginnings, it's easy to see that Being John Malkovich is a tremendously confident and original breath of fresh air, bursting at the seams with great performances, oddball twists and a meta-commentary on the vanishing concept of privacy. Perfectly accessible and endlessly entertaining, it's a darkly comic tour de force that plays ever better now than it did in 1999, when I was lucky enough to catch it in theaters.
Our story revolves around Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a puppeteer struggling in a wintry economic climate. His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) works as a pet store clerk and brings in most of the household income...as well as a ridiculous number of animals. Their relationship has completely lost its spark, but change comes after Craig gets a job as a file clerk at Lestercorp. Everything about this new job just seems a little off, though: the ceilings are five feet high, co-workers communicate on a different wavelength and his new boss claims to be over 100 years old. More change comes when Craig discovers a small door in his office which leads to the mind of John Horatio Malkovich (John Malkovich). Soon enough, Craig shares the secret with his attractive but distant co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), and the two budding capitalists decide to share their discovery with paying customers.
If it sounds weird...well, yes, Being John Malkovich is completely wacked, but in the best possibly way. Equal parts funny, mysterious and poignant, BJM is filled with fully realized characters that defy their seemingly one-note descriptions. Our story gradually unfolds into a series of love triangles (pyramids?), emotional connections, broken promises and, most importantly, a scathing commentary on emotional privacy in a world that's becoming increasingly connected in every possible way. Such a theme may not have been quite as evident back in 1999---before the advent of Facebook, Twitter and the onslaught of reality TV---but it's clear as day now, which makes Being John Malkovich all the more effective from top to bottom. Simply put, it's a film that must be seen (more than once) to be believed.
Criterion's new Blu-Ray edition of Being John Malkovich (also available on DVD) aims to replace Universal's 2000 Special Edition DVD and 2007 HD DVD releases, both of which offered solid A/V presentations and an appropriate blend of quirky extras. It's a fine effort in every category, making this a strong Blu-Ray debut that should remain definitive for quite some time. Whether this is your first or fiftieth viewing of Being John Malkovich, Criterion's well-rounded package fits this offbeat comedy like a glove.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio, this director approved 1080p transfer of Being John Malkovich looks as good as its source material will allow. The film definitely aims for a natural look, but this Blu-Ray represents a stable, eye-catchning visual presentation nonetheless. The muted color palette has been rendered nicely, which Jonze himself makes note of in an "About the Transfer" blurb printed in this Blu-Ray's accompanying booklet. Black levels are handled nicely, digital imperfections seem to be completely absent and a natural layer of film grain is present from start to finish. It's a fantastic effort that fans should sincerely appreciate, even if Being John Malkovich isn't exactly demo material.
NOTE: This review's screencaps were obtained promotionally and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
The audio presentation is also impressive; although BJM is largely dialogue driven, this DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track plays a few clever pranks along the way. The scenes inside Malkovich's head have always been a personal favorite, placing the viewer squarely inside the skull of another human being with subtle audio trickery and great rear channel usage. Sporadic "action scenes", such as trips inside the tunnel and portions of the film's third act, spring to life with strong directional effects, channel seperation and LFE usage. The film's excellent score is also represented well and adds another layer of sonic depth, while dialogue remains crisp and easily understood (unless you're LesterCorp's secretary). Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature....but none of the extras, sadly.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, this one-disc release is housed in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, although the cover artwork and design scheme are almost painfully dull. As usual, Criterion's menu designs are smooth and easy to navigate with no forced trailers. This 113-minute film has been divided into less than two dozen chapters, the layer change is subtle and this Blu-Ray is locked for Region "A" playback only. The included Booklet features an interview with Spike Jonze by fictional pop culture critic Perkus Tooth.
Criterion's first new extra is a scene-specific Audio Commentary
with filmmaker Michel Gondry, a friend/associate of both director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman. I love Gondry's work, from his music videos
to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
and even the underrated Be Kind Rewind
, but he's not a particularly clear commentator (in other words, subtitles would've been appreciated). Still, Gondry's track is enjoyable at times and peppered with occasional questions by editor Jeff Buchanan. It's also been trimmed to 58 minutes for "reasons of accuracy, audience interest, and legal liability".
New extras continue with a fly-on-the-wall Production Documentary by Lance Bangs, entitled "All Non-Combatants Please Clear the Set" (33 minutes, 1080i). It's an enjoyably loose affair, chock full of relaxed on-set camaraderie and a handful of staged gags, which was created from hours of original footage to create a portrait of the film's 1998 production. "Spike's Photos" (16 minutes, 1080p) is a more recent Bangs documentary but similar in tone, with Jonze sharing a collection of photos he took during production. Like most everything else included here, it's a scruffy but entertaining experience.
Our last new entry is an Interview with John Malkovich by humorist John Hodgman (28 minutes, 1080p), which provides more of an outsider's perspective to the film's creation and production. Among other topics, Malkovich speaks about his initial reaction to the script, early conversations with Jonze and Kaufman, his desire to direct the film (!), and diminishing privacy in the Internet Age. This interview is the most straightforward and accessible of the new extras, so it's a shame we couldn't get more.
Our bonus features conclude with some (but not all) of those found on Universal's excellent Special Edition DVD from 2000. These include a Featurette entitled "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering" (8 minutes, 1080i) and the In-Movie "Films" "7 1/2 Floor Orientation" and "John Horatio Malkovich: "Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" (8 minutes total, 1080i), as well as the film's excellent Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes, 1080p) and a quartet of quirky TV Spots (1 minute total, 1080i).
Missing from the Universal DVD are "An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Background Driving", a Spike Jonze photo gallery (replaced by "Spike's Photos") and "vomit" interview, the Zen-like "There Is Nothing Here" page, a few cast/crew notes and hidden soundtrack selections found on various menu screens.
Being John Malkovich is a clever, quirky masterpiece that plays even better now than it did in 1999. Charlie Kaufman's meta-script remains creative and engaging from start to finish, while each and every lead performance adds another layer to the proceedings. Spike Jonze does a fantastic job with his directorial debut, keeping this pitch-black comedy from collapsing under its own weight. Criterion's long-awaited Blu-Ray is a fairly definitive package, serving up a rock-solid technical presentation and a host of old and new bonus features. Overall, this is a near-perfect effort from top to bottom, which makes Being John Malkovich a must-own for new and seasoned viewers alike. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two in his spare time. Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD-DVDs and writing stuff in third person.