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USA 1999
Directed by
Spike Jonze
108 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Being John Malkovich

The script’s the thing in Spike Jonze’s film about a puppeteer Craig Schwatz (John Cusack) who discovers a portal that allows him, his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and others fifteen minutes in John Malkovich's mind.  Deliciously diverting as Charlie Kaufman’s inventively off-beat script is, as a dream remembered stands to the dream itself so Jonze’s film stands to it, the resonances of the irrational getting lost in the transposition to narrative cinema with its familiar conventions.

Whilst Jonze, a music video director (previously best known for the video of Fat Boy Slim's "Praise You") making his feature film debut transfers the pace and eclectic hipness of that form to the big screen what is evidently so appealing and completely acceptable in the strange logic of the dream, the mode which is the best suited to explain the sheer craziness of Kauffman’s concept, is ultimately grounded in the  larger warp and woof of waking consciousness which gives it meaning, a relationship which Michel Gondry got right with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which was also based on a Kauffman script but which isn't developed here. 

Being John Malkovich despite making allusions to the philosophical, moral and emotional implications of the idea of “being” someone else doesn’t really follow them through in any sustained way. Kauffman’s own Synecdoche, New York (2008) and in a more modest way, Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), were arguably more satisfying with their respective takes on thematically-related subject matter whereas Jonze settles for a series of more or less wacky moments, the best of which is probably when Malkovich gets inside his own head.

That, and a certain self- loathing that marks Kauffman’s work, evident most clearly in Jonze’s 2002 Adaptation in which Nicholas Cage plays a Kauffman alter ego (two in fact) as Cusack does here gives the film a rather depressing feel which is embodied in the gloomy and presumably stench-filled apartment inhabited by Craig and his equally if not more dysfunctional wife (well played by an unusually cast and barely recognisable Diaz

But then again there's Malkovich himself who enters into the iconoclastic spirit of the film with commendable enthusiasm (he had initially refused the role) and when all is said and done it is refreshingly different, a quality which was much appreciated in its day, the film becoming a huge cult hit.




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