Sunday, April 26, 2009

Our Obsession With 15 Minutes of Fame

Being John Malkovich (1999)
Dir: Spike Jonze. Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener and, yes, John Malkovich.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

I lament the lack of creativity in contemporary film. When the biggest hits of the year are based on comic-book characters, are sequels of successful films, or both, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the future of cinema. Sure, something fresh and vibrant sometimes finds its way into theaters as if by accident, but it doesn’t happen often. So I increasingly find myself hopping in the time machine for a ride back to when movies mattered.

It’s been a decade since Hollywood had a good year. We have to turn back the clock to 1999 when a slate of startling, incredibly creative films popped up like wild mushrooms. Whatever it was – perhaps widespread worries about the turning of the millennium – the movies of 1999 tapped into a vein of originality that hasn’t been seen since. That was the year of Kubrick’s subversive (and wildly misunderstood) swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, and best picture winner American Beauty – a revelation from a major studio. The Sixth Sense delivered a sensational twist to become one of the best ghost stories in cinema. David O. Russell’s Three Kings reinvented the war movie and eerily presaged much of what we have been fighting about in the Middle East ever since. Schwarzenegger capitalized on the turn of the new millennium with the devilish End of Days. And video director Spike Jonze, working from an outrageous script by newcomer Charlie Kaufman, unleashed the most wildly inventive satire in a generation.

In tone and texture, Being John Malkovich is that rare film that cannot be adequately described, although my game attempt follows below. It must be experienced. Demented and funny as hell, there has never been anything like it, before or since 1999. If you haven’t seen it, by all means do. If you have, now might be a good time to revisit this odd little film on the cusp of summer blockbuster season when more of the same makes us hunger for something different. Like being someone else for 15 minutes.

A bit of plot...
A puppeteer reluctantly takes a job with a bizarre company on the 7 ½ floor of a NYC office tower, where he discovers a secret door leading into the mind of actor John Malkovich.

Got that? Here’s a wildly inventive, completely crazy satire of celebrity obsession – spiced with a quest for eternal life, adultery and betrayal, madness, and gender confusion.

Being John Malkovich almost defies description. First-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s delightfully demented tale unfolds like a hallucination that could have been penned by Lewis Carroll under heavy medication. You’ve never seen anything like this. You probably never will again.

Cusack is a sensitive puppeteer whose skills just aren’t in high demand, although he blames his lagging career on “this wintry job climate.” His loopy wife (Cameron Diaz, adopting the shlub look, left), is devoted to a menagerie of house pets – a dog, assorted cats, a neurotic chimpanzee (the monkey’s problem stems from a childhood incident, we are told), an iguana, an aquarium of tropical fish and an obnoxious cockatoo. The noise in their one-bedroom apartment could push anyone over the edge.

Diaz tells her brooding husband that he needs to find a real job. Responding to a cryptic classified ad, he takes the elevator of an office building to the 7 ½ floor – yes, the elevator stops between the 7th and 8th levels. Scrambling into the hallway, he discovers that the ceilings are only five feet tall. Everyone walks hunched over, turning their heads sideways to talk, like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The explanation behind the construction of this floor is just as preposterous and equally funny. Cusack ambles down the hall, puzzled, looking as though he’s just popped down a rabbit hole. The receptionist talks in gibberish and confuses his legitimate questions with sexual harassment. Flummoxed, he’s ushered in to meet the boss, a mysterious doctor who doesn’t explain the company’s business, but offers his new employee a position in the filing department.

The job’s a snore, but Cusack takes an immediate liking to a co-worker (Catherine Keener), a shark in a woman’s business suit. She doesn’t think much of the scruffy puppeteer, but gets the hots for his wife. Diaz is equally smitten with Keener.

As if that wasn’t enough trouble, Cusack discovers a tiny door behind a filing cabinet at work. The portal opens to a narrow corridor, dripping with mud and effluvia. He crawls inside and is propelled, as though riding a water slide, through some sort of metaphysical corridor that deposits him into the mind of Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich. Cusack sees the world through the eyes of Malkovich for precisely 15 minutes before he is ejected, falling from the sky by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s an inspired bit of lunacy.

The time limit inside the actor’s mind is no doubt a reference to Andy Warhol’s comment that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

Exhilarated, Cusack tells Keener of his trip inside Malkovich. She smells a business opportunity. Who wouldn’t pay to be someone else – anybody else – for 15 minutes? The fact that it’s a celebrity only sweetens the deal.

Soon customers are queued up along the office hallway, waiting to pay $200 each for a ride inside the famous actor (at right). Cusack persuades his wife to give it a try. Diaz slips inside the portal, but only after Keener arranges a date with Malkovich. That way, while Diaz is inside the actor’s mind, she is able to indulge her fantasies with Keener. She can be a man seducing a woman. The new perspective is intoxicating. After Cusack picks her up by the turnpike, Diaz declares that she either wants a sex-change or to be a lesbian. Doesn’t matter which. It’s hard to convey the hilarity of this scene, which is best experienced first-hand, as a small comic miracle that keeps building as Cusack does a slow burn.

Malkovich is superb playing not so much himself, but perhaps the public perception of who he is – a quiet man given to contemplation and understated elegance. The supporting players are likewise marvelous, especially Diaz, who seems to take delight in hiding her beauty behind a challenging role that demands she look and act like a neurotic ditz.

Cusack is always fun to watch, although his films are hit or miss. This may be his best role since Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). Here, he fully understands the controlling nature of his character. After all, for a guy who loves to pull the strings of marionettes, what could be more satisfying than crawling inside another person’s brain and making him do tricks?

First-time feature director Jonze, who got his start shooting innovative music videos, has a fractured way of looking at the world. It’s as though he was peering at his characters through a prism of broken glass – the different facets of their personalities never throw the same reflection twice. They’re unpredictable. As such, we feel off-balance in an amusing way, like exploring a funhouse with warped mirrors and tilted floors.

Being John Malkovich landed on multiple top 10 lists in 1999. It was a good year for rookie director Jonze, who also enjoyed a great supporting role in Three Kings as a hick infantryman. For all its lunacy, Being John Malkovich still earned Oscar nominations from the serious-minded Academy: for Jonze as best director, Keener as Best Supporting Actress and for Kaufman’s original screenplay.

A decade later, the film remains as audacious, anarchic and outrageously funny as the day it was released. I say with sorrow that we will not likely see its kind again.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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