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Being John Malkovich

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean

(Universal; US DVD: 15 May 2012)

Review [29.Oct.1999]

Fans of Being John Malkovich and its sometimes-elusive director, Spike Jonze, may not be surprised to find out that the commentary track on the new Criterion edition of the film does not actually feature Jonze himself. Instead, Jonze’s fellow music video brat turned auteur Michel Gondry begins to speak: “What the fuck? I didn’t do this movie.”


He didn’t quite do a full commentary, either; instead of speaking over the entire film, Gondry’s observations are laid over an hour-ish reel of highlights from the two-hour Being John Malkovich, separate from the full movie itself. A message on the disc says that Gondry’s commentary had to be shortened for “accuracy, audience interest, and legality,” a message that seems equally likely to be true or the product of one of Jonze’s stone-faced pranks.


It’s not always easy to parse. When Gondry talks about the current of bitter jealousy running through his relationship with Jonze, he sounds sincere—but even if he’s half joking, the observation is sound. Jonze and Gondry to seem to move in parallel, jockeying for the best Kaufman scripts. At first, Jonze was ahead, scoring Being John Malkovich and its triumphant meta-companion Adaptation, while Gondry, as he points out on the commentary, worked with Kaufman on the far less-loved Human Nature.


But a few years later, Gondry and Kaufman shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for near-instant classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In addition to, you know, actually making Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


Even apart from their Kaufman collaborations, Jonze and Gondry have stayed in an odd sort of give-and-take sync: They’ve done music videos for some of the same artists. They both dabbled in the frustration of big-studio properties: Jonze on Where the Wild Things Are and Gondry with The Green Hornet. Jonze has a more consistent cinematic track record, but Gondry has far more films to his credit. It feels fitting, then, to hear Gondry speak of jealousy as Being John Malkovich shows us Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), unkempt and vaguely resentful as he watches more successful puppeteers on television.


Through Craig Schwartz isn’t explicitly Charlie Kaufman—that would have to wait for Adaptation—he seems like a self-criticizing stand-in on some level; a frustrated creative type with a needy, neurotic streak. His wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz) pressures him to find actual employment, which brings Craig to LesterCorp, an office on the stunted floor seven-and-a-half; everyone who works on this half-tall floor must walk or stand stooped over.


At the office, Craig finds both an unrequited crush on the dismissive Maxine (Catherine Keener) and a portal that sends entrants into the brain of actor John Malkovich (playing himself) for 15 minutes, before dumping them out on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. This only covers the set-up; the movie also includes a transsexual awakening, human puppeteering, a glimpse into Malkovich’s subconscious, and sights that Malkovich himself claims that “no man should see.”


This level of strangeness could easily turn smug and affected, but as hilarious as Being John Malkovich is (and it remains, 13 years after its original release, very funny), it never lapses into self-amusement. The movie has its deadpan matter-of-fact style – in another feature on the disc, Jonze can be seen, at the time of filming, talking about his obsession with finding a naturalistic tone – but its characters are far from detached. Their jockeying for control of Malkovich has intense (if misguided) feeling, painted with a drab color palette (given great detail on a new transfer) and carried to its logical, insanely inventive conclusions.


Even a funny cameo from Charlie Sheen, playing himself as Malkovich’s best friend, maintains a grim sort of reality following Sheen’s real-life decline. In short, Being John Malkovich, though ostensibly more of a comedy, drama, and/or fantasy, works a bit like good science fiction.


This means it has “all sorts of philosophical-type questions about the nature of identity,” as the disc’s liner notes mention. But this line comes from an “interview” between Jonze and the fabricated Perkus Tooth, a vicious (and often funny) parody of a film studies/pop-culture analyst. Kaufman and especially Jonze have a way of resisting metaphysical seriousness while engaging with those philosophical-type questions, nonetheless.


They also seem to resist the typical ways of looking back on a film, so instead of the usual commentary anecdotes and behind-the-scenes boilerplate, we get Michel Gondry going off-topic, and a 30-minute distillation of home video-like footage that cinematographer Lance Bangs shot on-set. Jonze also appears in another Bangs-shot feature supposedly about his own on-set photography but actually providing his memories of the project’s inception and production (Jonze can’t resist couching this in a joke; he claims to be looking back from the year 2028 as the movie is being “re-digitized” for a new format).


Criterion also sends humorist John Hodgman to interview Malkovich himself, who Jonze credits as making “everything” – not just the movie, but his and Kaufman’s careers (and probably, by extent, the careers of Gondry, Bangs, and others) – happen. In the chat, Malkovich plays into the Kaufman/Jonze prankster reputation, calling them both “savvy” and “cagy”, but also undermines Jonze’s deadpan exterior, referring to them both as unexpectedly “steely”.


Listening to Malkovich talk about how the script reached him, and his early involvement with the film, is fascinating; listening to Malkovich talk in general is fascinating because, as Kaufman and Jonze correctly perceived, there is something weirdly compelling about him. He’s used in the film as a stand-in for recognizable but essentially unglamorous celebrity—it’s a running gag that none of the characters appear capable of naming a single Malkovich film even while wanting desperately to occupy his mind and body—yet the filmmakers do not view him as interchangeable. Malkovich himself reports offering to direct and produce the script if it could be changed to another actor (presumably not wanting to produce and direct a movie about himself); Kaufman refused.

That early stubbornness resulted in one of the best films of the 90s; not quite as moving as Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine but a brilliant execution of a brilliant idea. It sounds simple, but such a process from great script to great film so rarely occurs. Gondry’s jealousy—real, imaginary, or a combination of both—is earned.

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