[box cover]

Being John Malkovich: Special Edition

USA Home Video

Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener,
Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place
and John Malkovich

Written by Charlie Kaufman
Directed by Spike Jonze


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Review by Steven Firstenburg                    


Most movies today suffer from a lack of originality. This is nothing new. In fact, it's to be expected. When films first came into being back at the dawn of the twentieth century, the whole medium was new and exciting. Every action captured on film, however mundane, seemed fresh, as if the whole act of kissing onscreen or seeing children play had never been done before. When actual stories were told, those too seemed new even when it might have been something the audience had experienced in a book or seen on stage. It was the film medium that made those tales seem as if they had never been thought of before in some way or the other.

As the century progressed, so did movies. The stories became more complex and the technology more advanced. Even so, most of the movies seemed to be rehashes of things seen before. Audiences became used to seeing the same situations played out over and over again albeit with slight differences in setting or style. From big-budget blockbusters to small independent features, most of them seemed to be lacking imagination and originality. The stories grew stale and the audiences became numbed. In 1999, a movie came out that shocked audiences with its sheer inventiveness. Nothing like it had come before. Every twist and turn taken by its characters had never been done in quite the same way. By the end of the film, one is left with the sense that what they had witnessed might not be the greatest movie ever made, but at least it's one of the most original and creative — Being John Malkovich.

To try to explain the full plot of Being John Malkovich would be futile — it's the type of film that has to be seen in order to fully know what is being told. The story follows an unhappy couple, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) and his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz), two people whose lives just don't seem to be fulfilling. Craig's an unemployed puppeteer and Lottie is a pet-store owner who takes her work home with her. After Craig takes a job at Lexcorp — a generic company distinguished only by its location and size — Craig accidentally discovers a door that is a portal to the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (playing himself). Craig can't believe his discovery, and when he tries to tell his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) — who he's smitten with but who has brushed off his advances — she offers to go into business with him, selling 15-minute trips into Malkovich's head. Lottie also finds out about the portal, and after she's experienced being someone else, her whole belief system is thrown into disarray, causing her to doubt the most fundamental aspects about herself and her existence. And when Malkovich himself finds out about Craig and Maxine's exploitation of his cranium, he demands that they put a stop to their abuse of his psyche. Easier said than done, as it seems that there's more to the portal than originally thought. Just what is best left unsaid, but all of the twists and turns make Being John Malkovich an experience that will stay with you long after the movie's over, and it will make you scratch your head and wonder why more films are not this creative.

Director Spike Jonze, best known before Being John Malkovich for directing several original and inventive music videos, exhibits some bold stylistics here. The look and feel of Malkovich is almost cartoonish, with jarring cuts, erratic camera moves, and distinctive visuals. Of course, the movie wouldn't have worked without the help of a clever script, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has come up with a winner. Even the few conventional moments of the film are twisted, and the acting by everyone in this twisted cosmos is first-rate. Cusack is both sympathetic and disturbed; Catherine Keener's Maxine was worthy of that Oscar nomination, playing the sort of self-centered vamp that most men hate to love; and many critics have commented on Cameron Diaz's role, merely because she is almost unrecognizable as the frumpy Lottie. For once, Diaz relies on her acting skills instead of her looks, and it works. Special mention should go to John Malkovich, who agreed to make fun of himself in this film, taking his public persona and exaggerating it to an extreme. Of course, the film is Being John Malkovich, not Being Pauly Shore. If it was, it just wouldn't have worked — a comic actor making fun of himself is just not the same as a dramatic actor doing so.

USA Home Entertainment has put out a special edition of Being John Malkovich, which is excellent. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is very clean and sharp. The picture is slightly dark, but not to such an extent that it is troublesome. Audio is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Surround. Alas there is no commentary track, which would have rounded out the disc nicely, but there are a fair amount of other features. Along with a theatrical trailer and four television spots, there are two segments that are in fact shorts that appeared in the main movie — "7 1/2 Floor Orientation," which spoofs old employee-orientation films and provides the history of Craig's new workplace, and the hilarious "Dance of Despair and Disillusionment," wherein Malkovich abandons acting for a far nobler craft. There's an interview with director Spike Jonze that was conducted shortly after completion of the film and ends rather abruptly (Is this interview a gag? —Ed.), and there's also an interview with an extra from the film whose job it was to drive down the New Jersey Turnpike. She talks about her experiences as an extra and some of the people she's encountered, which actually is rather amusing. Finally, there's a photo album with behind-the-scenes photos taken by Jonze, as well as the obligatory cast bios and filmographies. A director's commentary would have made the disc perfect, but considering a lot of films on DVD don't even get this kind of treatment, it's a small complaint.

— Steven Firstenburg



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