Director Spike Jonze debut feature film is a triumph. Featuring a bizarrely original storyline, the screenplay by Charlie Kaufman is brought to the screen by Jonze in what may turn out to be one of the funniest films of the year.
Our fable begins as we meet tormented puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). He performs free puppet shows on the street and so offends audiences he is mercilessly beat to a pulp. We soon learn that his marriage is about as successful as his puppetry career. Schwartz wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is a pet store employee that is more caring toward her pets than her husband. Schwartz must get a job and ends up working on the 7 1/2th floor of an ancient downtown building. The entire floor is only about five feet high, however, the film does provide a logical explanation. The floor was constructed by the building’s owner to please his midget wife. Makes sense. There he meets sexy Maxine (Catherine Keener) and fumbles in every attempt to even speak to her. Schwartz accidentally discovers a doorway (literally) into the mind of John Malkovich. For 15 minutes, anyone who enters the doorway sees and experiences everything through the eyes of Malkovich. After the period is up, the viewer is thrown onto the shoulder of the New Jersey turnpike. The unexplainable experience leaves Schwartz changed and he introduces Maxine to the doorway. The two quickly start their own business charging people $200 bucks a head to “be someone else” for 15 minutes. Complications arise as Lotte worms her way between the two entrepreneurs entering the doorway and coming out a changed woman in more ways than one. If this description of the movie already has your interest piqued, know that this all occurs in about the first third of the film. This movie takes so many unexpected twists and turns that you may feel as if you are on the indie film version of the popular carnival ride tilt-a-whirl. It’s that cool. Sure, there are lots of films that begin with interesting premises, then fizzle out at the end. “Malkovich” simply continues to surprise and entertain in every single damn scene up until the finale.
In what might have been a huge letdown, there is a scene in which Malkovich himself enters the doorway. Rather than leave the images that he experiences to one’s imagination, what he sees ends up being perhaps the most hilarious and inventive scene in a film this year. (Sorry, I can’t ruin it; you have to go see it. Just picture what happens when you put two mirrors up to one another and look toward them.)
Diaz does a fantastic job as Cusack’s disenchanted wife, a brave move to cast a bombshell like Diaz and make her look so unappealing with frizzed out hair and a frumpy look. Keener is sexy-cool in her part but it is Malkovich himself who makes the film. His willingness to bare so much on screen should be a wake up call to lazy actors out there who continually take the easy roles.
What sets the film apart is not only the acting, but the inventive ways that Jonze visually delivers such weird setpieces such as a gunfight and chase through the memories in Malkovich’s head. Unlike most hack music video directors, Jonze has proven he can carry a feature better than most veteran filmmakers. While “Malkovich” is likely to do only modest box office (the unfortunate barometer for success these days) Jonze directing debut emerges as the strongest of the year. I can’t wait to see what the scrawny Jonze will serve up next.
Sure, you could go see any old formulaic action film, romantic comedy, sci-fi flick or yet another drama, but you will NEVER see anything like “Being John Malkovich” this year. Look for this one on my top ten list for 1999. Not just awesome, it’s the movie equivalent of amazing, marathon sex.