An auspicious feature film debut for director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich hasn’t lost any of its potent weirdness in the 13 years since its release. Kaufman’s ideas about identity, art, fame and manipulation are both hilarious and disconcerting. Jonze’s rendition of the film universe’s dreary existentialism is perfect, and he garners career-best performances from his A-list cast.
John Cusack stars as Craig Schwartz, an aspiring puppeteer whose deeply personal marionette routines have yet to catch on with a mass audience. Prodded by his animal-loving wife, Lotte (a frizzed-out Cameron Diaz), to get a day job, Craig reluctantly accepts employment as a filing clerk at LesterCorp, an office where the ceilings barely hit 5-feet thanks to a “low-overhead” location on the 7 1/2th floor. Here, we get one of our first glimpses of Jonze’s utterly straight-faced approach to the material — this is no wacky, quirky location; it’s a casually oppressive indicator of the nature of modern life.
One day, Craig discovers a tiny door with a tunnel inside that takes a person inside the head of actor John Malkovich (playing himself in the gold standard by which all such performances ought to be judged) for 15 minutes, followed by a swift exit alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig cooks up a scheme with alluring coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), whom he is openly and desperately lusting after, to sell tickets to the experience. While Craig pines for Maxine, Maxine’s interests are sparked by Lotte, but it’s not until Lotte herself goes inside Malkovich that the sparks really fly.
Although initially, Malkovich’s inclusion in the film seems almost totally incidental — i.e., it could be anyone famous, or even a non-celebrity without disrupting many of the film’s themes — he soon becomes an essential component. Malkovich’s performance is brilliantly deranged, evolving from a dignified, if a little self-possessed, actor to a man increasingly under the control of another person, his identity being swallowed in a sea of megalomania and obsession.
While I’m still not sure the film’s final act works as well as what comes before it (the vessel pseudo-fantasy stuff is intriguing, but a little half-baked), Being John Malkovich never ceases to be an ambitious, puzzling, fascinating and unsettling work.
The Blu-ray Disc
Presented in 1080p high definition and its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Being John Malkovich gets a pleasant if not jaw-dropping upgrade on Criterion’s Blu-ray release. A substantial improvement over Universal’s 2000 DVD, the disc accurately represents the film’s look — a kind of drab naturalism that’s often shadowy and without colors that pop. Fine detail is excellent, from the minute features of Craig’s marionettes to the banal office interiors to Malkovich’s well-groomed apartment. Film grain is just slightly noticeable and has not been tampered with, and sharpness and clarity are consistent. This is a faithful transfer of the film’s intended look.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, offering extensive immersion in the film’s layered sound design, and allowing each sound element to sound distinctly crisp and clean.
Criterion has assembled a pretty nice selection of new supplements, while carrying a few over from the previous DVD. Up first is a selected scene commentary from Michel Gondry (Jonze’s friend and competitor, as the packaging notes), who also collaborated with Kaufman on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The commentary runs over about an hour’s worth of scenes, with Gondry speaking off the cuff and occasionally being asked questions by editor Jeff Buchanan. Lance Bangs contributes a new 30-minute behind-the-scenes doc featuring footage from the set and interviews with Cusack, Diaz and Keener. Humorist and actor John Hodgman sits down with Malkovich for a very entertaining and thoughtful interview about his role in the film and the nature of celebrity. Also new is a short interview with Jonze, with his on-set photos acting as a guide.
Carried over from the Universal DVD are two films-within-the-film, the LesterCorp orientation video and the American Arts & Culture piece on Malkovich’s career change. Bangs’ short An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering features Phil Huber, who performed much of the puppeteering seen in the film. A handful of TV spots and the theatrical trailer are also included. A few minor featurettes from the DVD don’t make it over, including a short interview with Jonze where he has to stop to throw up (real? probably not, but who knows?).
The package also includes a booklet with a “transcript” of a “Q&A” between Perkus Tooth (yes, the Jonathan Lethem character) and Jonze, with Tooth offering a series of increasingly absurd readings of the film to a nonplussed Jonze. It’s funny, although one sort of wishes the usual analytical essay by a critic had made an appearance as well.
The Bottom Line
A nicely appointed new edition for Jonze and Kaufman’s singular work, the Criterion edition of Being John Malkovich comes highly recommended.