Film’s fresh, innovative idea pushes limits too far

Watching John Malkovich portray roles on screen is an eerie experience. His performances in films such as In the Line of Fire and Con Air made moviegoers cringe. Imagine being inside his head.

In Being John Malkovich (Gramercy Pictures), you have the opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of Malkovich. But the film isn’t just about being Malkovich, it’s about living your life as someone else. Unfortunately, the film starts with a fresh, yet strange, concept and pushes it too far.

Craigh Schwartz (John Cusack, Pushing Tin) is frustrated with life. A talented pupeteer, Craig can’t find work as a pupeteer and is stuck in a dead-end marriage. His wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary), works at a pet shop and always brings her work home with her. They could advertise their apartment as an East Coast version of the San Diego Zoo.

Reluctantly, Craig takes a job as a filing clerk at LesterCorp., which is located on the seventh and a half floor of the building. Everyone who works on the floor must walked around hunched over – there’s only five feet and three inches between the floor and ceiling. At work, Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener, 8MM), a witty and alluring businesswoman who works in a different office on the seventh and a half floor. Craig is drawn to Maxine and looks to her to add pizazz to his mundane life. She, however, feels no chemistry.

One day at work, Craig slams a filing cabinet and a file falls down the crack between the cabinet and the wall. When he goes to retrieve the file, he discovers a boarded up hole in the wall – which turns out to be a portal into John Malkovich’s head.

From there, the film allows viewers to see what it would be like if you were someone else. It forces movie-goers to ask questions such as would your life be any better if you were living it as someone else or would it be the same, and furthermore, are you really you or is there someone else being you? The questions the film poses are thought-provoking and the initial concept is intriguing. Yet you walk away from the film confused because there are too many odd quirks in the plot.

For example, Lotte and Maxine have an odd attraction that only is consummated when Lotte is in Malkovich’s head. The head of LesterCorp., Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), finds portals so that he can live forever in another’s body. And Craig decides to invade Malkovich’s head so that he can use him to get Maxine and become a famous pupeteer.

Despite the problems with the story, all the actors give strong performances in the film. While Malkovich plays himself for much of the film, he must portray himself with Craig manipulating his thoughts and actions. These scenes in the film demonstrate Malkovich’s ability to fully become his character. His mannerisms and facial expressions remind you of Craig, not of Malkovich.

Cusack and Diaz demonstrate their ranges as actors with these roles. They abandon their good looks and stylish appearances. Instead, they look like they have stepped out of a 1980s film that had an exceptionally bad hair stylist and make-up artist. The distinct changes in appearance allow you to further separate the actor from the role. You are not watching Diaz as Lotte or Cusack as Craig. You simply are following the bizarre lives of Lotte and Craig.

The other actors, including Keener, Bean and Mary Kay Place as Dr. Lester’s hard-of-hearing secretary, give commendable performances. They transform the script into the story and add depth to the film.

Director Spike Jonze, who recently appeared in Three Kings, is best known for his work on the Beastie Boys’ 1994 music video for Sabotage. Being John Malkovich marks his directorial debut in a feature film. Jonze takes risks with his directing and succeeds. During the scenes when a character is inside Malkovich’s head, the audience actually sees the world as the character would see it. Malkovich wore a camera on his head in order to give the audience the true vantage point of the character.

Screenwriter Charlie Kauffman has a gift for writing – it’s obvious in the smart quips that catch the audience off guard and leads it to laughter. Through his words and the talented performances of the cast, movie-goers feel sympathy for Craig at one moment and anger the next.

His writing also reflects his ingenuity. Craig could have worked in any profession, but Kauffman writes him as pupeteer, which aids him in manipulating Malkovich when he enters his body through the portal. Malkovich becomes Craig’s puppet. But in the end, Kauffman tries to accomplish too much in one film.

Being John Malkovich isn’t a film for everyone. The movie has a plethora of strengths, including a talented cast and crew and many engaging and humorous scenes. It’s funny, dramatic and insightful, but, above all, it is bizarre. The movie will make you think – something few films today accomplish. Yet, in the end you feel too perplexed and too exhausted to sort through all of the questions the movie brings up. You may not even be able to figure out if you like the film.

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