NYFF REVIEW: Brave "Being John Malkovich" Boasts Clever Celeb Fable
by Ray Pride
Everyone’s heard Warhol’s dictum that the future will find everyone famous for fifteen minutes; in screenwriter Charlie Kaufman‘s cracked alternative universe, everyone can rent fifteen minutes in the mind of actor John Malkovich, sharing his thoughts as he eats toast, soaps his belly or meditates on the telephone purchase of a set of new, “loden”-dyed bath towels.
“Being John Malkovich” is a terrific shaggy-celeb fable, filled with the rarest sort of comic invention to be found in movies today. It boasts a clever idea played out to the extent of its own internal illogic, topping itself, playfully working through its conceits without losing gas in the third act. But it’s also filled with the sort of things that will be called “brave”: Malkovich plays “himself,” or a denatured version of a celebrity of whom everyone knows a few vague, almost sinister facts.
John Cusack, lacking box-office stature, allows himself to be greasy-haired, ill kempt and rotten-hearted as a petulant puppeteer whom no one “understands.” Cameron Diaz plays his little-loved, workaholic, child-wishing, animal-bearing wife, sweet and lovely yet presented as the plainest of Janes under a ratty dun-colored wig and indifferent makeup. And, as the lust object of most of the movie’s men, ever-dependable independent stalwart Catherine Keener, makes more than the most of her particular beauty (with just a dollop of extra ruby lipstick).
Forget brave. Instead, let’s call it a movie in which everything that needed to be done, got done, without undue fuss or fury. (There are even a couple of laser-precise comic cameos that would be wrong to spoil in a review.) Making a smashing first feature, director Spike Jonze restrains his rambunctious rock video-trained eye and conceptual swagger to serve Kaufman’s script.
This is a believable, beaten-down version of Manhattan (with some obvious Los Angeles-shot stand-ins for the borough) in which a glimpse of fame — or more properly, a glimpse of the chores and bores in everyone’s life glimpsed through the eyes of someone famous– elevates us from the everyday. Rules are established, genders are bent, and the idea of becoming “someone else” becomes more frightening by the moment.
And it’s damn funny; it’s not necessary to know too much about Malkovich’s career or the spite of lovelorn puppeteers in order to howl at the delightfully weird things that come our way. The themes worm their way to the surface with graceful ease. It would also be wonderful if audiences could discover the film with as little knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the outrageous complications as possible, making it an ideal word-of-mouth film. And I can’t resist a movie that builds to Malkovich, clad in an “I love New York” hat alongside the New Jersey Turnpike in driving rain, ranting, “I have been to the dark side. I have seen a world that no man should ever see! This portal is mine and it must be sealed up forever. For the love of God!”
A few salutes without giving away the game: A craggy Orson Bean provides indelible comic timing in an important minor role. Producer Michael Stipe should be offered credit for rescuing the script from development hell. Carter Burwell‘s music offers as much support to the movie’s unique mood as it has to films like “Fargo” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Cinematographer Lance Acord, veteran of many commercials and videos, shot “Buffalo 66” and there’s a similar dowdy grace to the work here, ending on a bright, euphoric vision of several of the characters’ futures that, at bottom, is more haunting, and more unsettling than anything that came before. Innocent beauty has its moment in the sun as the end credits begin, then there is blackness.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago’s Newcity. He writes about movies and the industry for many other publications. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]