Friday, January 6, 2012

Being John Malkovich (1999)

In the present day, Charlie Kaufman has become one of the most well-known screenwriters in Hollywood for his brisk originality and high concept themes. Whether it's a satire of Hollywood cinema conventions in "Adaptation," or a scientific study of the human memory and love in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Kaufman has created some of the most original movies for almost a decade and a half. However, his true introduction into the face of cinema was with the contemporary classic "Being John Malkovich."

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an unemployed puppeteer living in New York City with his pet-obsessed wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Desperate to make money, he takes a job as a filing clerk on the strange 7 1/2 floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building where he soon develops an attraction to his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who doesn't return the same affections though. However one day while organizing files, Craig discovers a secret portal that transports him into the mind of famous actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). Craig's able to hear and see everything that Malkovich does, and after 15 minutes pass by, he's ejected out of the portal and dropped into a ditch near the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig reveals the portal to both Lotte and Maxine, who both want to exploit it for their own personal reasons.
Everyone in the small yet extremely talented cast deliver great performances, even with the fact that they play characters who are all unlikeable in one way or the other. John Cusack relishes within the role of Craig who's really the only character that has a personality that could be considered normal compared to the rest of the characters who are complete weirdos. Cusack delivers the kind of performance you expect from just about every independent film he stars in, but he displays great charisma with the actors he works alongside with. Once again my theory on how Cameron Diaz is a better actress when her makeup is removed has succeeded again. Diaz delivers a performance full of oddball entertainment from her character's weird obsession of pets to her odd interests outside her home life. Catherine Keener also delivers one of her finest performances as Craig's manipulative co-worker. The finally, there's John Malkovich playing a fictionalized version of himself. It's a rarity to see an actor actually play a semi-loose version of their self, but Malkovich keeps you entertained with his change in between his calm,collective attitude and occasional freakouts.

For this being his directorial debut, Spike Jonze knocks this film out of the park. Already working with a terrific script by Charlie Kaufman, Jonze's background as a music video director translates to smart attention-to-detail and a style that is both surreal and artistic. When filming the portal scenes from Malkovich's mind, Jonze uses clever tricks with the camera that exclude it's presence from reflective objects, which in turn make you question how in the world he made the scene work. Jonze's artistic style works the best when filming the scenes on the 7 1/2 floor setting, in which each shot looks like its taken straight out of a painting.
Charlie Kaufman's script is full of smart,quirky dialogue perfectly delivered by the cast, but also contains elements that serve as high concepts you typically don't see in most dark comedies. One of the most well-known examples is Craig's occupation as a puppeteer. Once the portal is open to the John Malkovich's mind, his background as a puppeteer juxtaposes to how everyone wants to have their own kind of control over the portal throughout the film. In addition, there have been many instances where dark comedies serve up a great first half followed by an underwhelming second half or vice versa, but Kaufman delivers enough clever and unexpected twists and turns throughout both of those acts, that it's hard to come to terms on which half you love more for its creativity.

If it wasn't for "American Beauty" dominating the awards buzz back in 1999, "Being John Malkovich" constantly creeps within that film's level of greatness. If I ran the Oscars for that year in film, I would have at least awarded Charlie Kaufman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay because he went more above and beyond in terms of plot and characterization than Alan Ball did. Despite the high praise that I award this film, be warned that this film's idiosyncratic nature may be divisive for some viewers. Overall though, "Being John Malkovich" is an immensely entertaining film with great performances from its lead actors, visually artistic direction by Spike Jonze and a highly original, clever script by Charlie Kaufman make this one of the most inventively smart dark comedies I have seen in many years.

Final Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant review man! I have seen Kaufman's directorial "Synecdoche New York" which was pretty interesting too. Heard great things about this one as well...about time I checked it out!