Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #6 --- Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)

Here's what we've covered so far:

The Top 10 Films of 1999:

Introduction: The Best Films of 1999
10 - The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
9 - Affliction (Paul Schrader)
8- American Movie (Chris Smith)
7- Rosetta (The Dardenne Brothers)

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Being John Malkovich is just plain and simple a really damn good comedy. What I mean by that is that a lot of the focus is always centered on the ingenious premise penned by Charlie Kaufman. This postmodern comedy about a portal into the mind of the most unlikely of actors (John Malkovich playing himself) is rightly extolled for its one-of-a-kind, dada-esque storyline (I mean puppets are a major part of the third act); however, it’s easy to overlook just how sure first time director Spike Jonze’s timing is, how funny its actors (John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener) are, and how enjoyable this most bizarre, existential comedy is.

There’s so much to like about the innovation in Kaufman’s script. The detail attributed to the puppetry, the bizarre love triangle, the wonderfully odd and refreshing setting on a 7 ½ floor of an office building, and the sheer audacity to continue to go for the gusto for its entire 112 minute run time. Kaufman’s script doesn’t always work, but it has a way of weaving in tender moments amidst the absurdity (like the aforementioned love triangle where a pet store employee played by Diaz falls in love with the sultry co-worker of her husband).

Cusack plays a file clerk who puppeteers on the side. He gets a job at an odd building on the 7 ½ floor…and what they half floor…well you just need to see the brilliant training video they have to watch. It’s the details like the training video that get the biggest laughs. Or the way Diaz interacts with a monkey who has anxiety disorder (the only genuine relationship in the film because it’s the only one not predicated on sexual desire or power over the mind); or how Cusack puts on a puppet show on a street corner that is not kid friendly. These are the things that compound on the brilliant ideas of Kaufman, and are executed brilliantly by the cast to create some big laughs. Cusack is truly pathetic (and borderline psychotic) in his pursuit of Keener’s sexy siren, and Diaz’ pursuit of her seems more genuine, more from the heart.

Once we find out the reasons why there is a portal into Malkovich’s head the story gets a bit congested with some big Meta moments, but they all seem to work in this fantasy that seems indebted to the films of Terry Gilliam. The acting is universally good here, especially Malkovich who in the third act is being completely controlled by Cusack’s character; this is the ultimate fantasy for a puppeteer. There is a scene at the end when Malkovich gives up on acting, and there is a tribute video about his career playing on the television, and there cameos in the video that are just perfect. Speaking of cameos, Charlie Sheen drops by as Malkovich’s friend and confidant, and when Malkovich begins to relay his relationship with Keener’s character to Sheen there are so surprisingly funny moments from the actor.

The film is shot the way a Kafka story feels. The film is surreal, yes, but not a bunch of odd vignettes that act as nothing more than a platform for non sequiturs. Kaufman’s script is surprisingly taut considering all of the existential and postmodern ideas he has fluttering around, and as I’ve already mentioned, those big ideas could bog down a lot of movies annulling them of their comedic moments. Not this film, though…every scene is executed to perfection and no idea overshadows ones enjoyment with this film. I mean come on…when a film can pull off the visual gag of a title card that reads: “Malkovich’s Puppetry Master Class. Julliard School, New York City” you know you’re dealing with a special kind of comedy that doesn’t come around too often.

The subdued, yet beautiful and haunting, score by Carter Burwell is another one of the major highlights of the film. And cinematographer Lance Acord films the office scenes with the appropriate amount of sterility, and then knows to kick up the visual √©lan at the right moments so that the audience doesn’t grow weary of the camera’s tricks. The journey into Malkovich’s brain could have gotten tiresome, but Acord is always doing something new and interesting with his camera so as not to bore the audience…because too much innovation can be a boring thing when overused (I’m looking right at you Daren Arronofsky and you’re zoom into the eye trick).

Spike Jonze is one of those directors that I wish would work more. It’s incredible that this was his first film as it shows a filmmaker who is able to unravel new surprise after new surprise in a perfectly executed way. There is a chase scene at the end of this film that is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen…it’s also one of the most inspired, and Jonze’s direction throughout the entire hard-to-believe third act never steps wrong. He followed this film by directing another Kaufman script the brilliant Adaptation.; another film that spent the majority of its time in its characters mind. Again, he shows us a director who understands Kaufman (that doesn’t always happen…need I remind you of Human Nature…ugh) and not only gets the big themes, but that there’s classic humor buried beneath all those postmodern ideas.

Of course Kaufman has made a career off these kinds of offbeat comedies inhabited by offbeat characters. Being John Malkovich is still one of those comedies that always manage to sneak up on me with how much I laugh out loud. The famous scene where Malkovich gets into his own head is still one of the most surreal and hilarious scenes I’ve seen in a movie. I don’t think the film has aged as well as the others that will rank higher, but it’s still worth dusting off every now and then and re-watching. Taking another look at this picture was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had this year – this project has proven to me (and as I stated at the beginning of this endeavor) that when something this audacious, something that can be easily defended as one of the most original films of the 90’s ranks sixth on this list…then you know you’re dealing with a very special year in film.

Extra Stills:


  1. This is a pretty great film and kudos to Malkovich for willing to mess with his persona so much. I normally can't stand Cameron Diaz but she's really good in this and I can remember first seeing this shocked at how unglamorous she was made up to be. It's good to see actors willing do that kinda thing.

    I think that Spike Jonze is really an interesting filmmaker (so many of his music videos are classics) and I eagerly await to see his take on WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. The footage in the trailers looks amazing!

  2. J.D.

    Sorry it took so long to get back to your comment. I've been swamped with work and school. I agree with you about Jonze's talent...he has only made two movies (that we've seen...like you I am eagerly awaiting his third this October), but they have both been masterpieces. It feels weird to call him one of the premier filmmakers working today when he's only made two movies.

  3. I liked this film the first time I saw it, but it lost o n subsequent viewings. I did appreciate Carter Burwell's score though. I am also lukewarm on ADAPTATION, but I am still for a number of reasons hopeful that WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE will be a great big success. You've penned a very fine piece here (with dazzling caps) that's hard to contest. I can only attribute the disparity to a variation on taste.

  4. Wow, Sam. I've had the exact opposite reaction as you. I agree, though, it looks like this is just a difference in taste. I too am looking forward to Where the Wild Things Are...it was one of my favorite picture books as a kid.