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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> November 1999 >> Being John Malkovich
Just who is John Malkovich? John Gavin Malkovich is something of a stealth actor, his appeal being more famous than most of the roles he's played. It is one of the running jokes in the movie that the people who recognize Malkovich misidentify the reason they know him. I've only previously seen him in 1993's In the Line of Fire, one of the best thrillers of that year, due in no small part to his portrayal of the villain. Malkovich is an excellent target for this movie precisely because the public hasn't pigeonholed him as a particular kind of celebrity, giving the movie extreme liberty to create a Malkovich from thin air. I suppose it helps that "Malkovich" is fun to say, too. Does anyone really know the relationship between John Horatio Malkovich, the character in Being John Malkovich, and John Gavin Malkovich, the actor who plays him? His acting here does nothing to clear this up.
Being John Malkovich is based on one of the most intellectually stimulating concepts ever to pass through my brain. All hail Charlie Kaufman for creating so many levels of abstraction and having them make sense in less than two hours. The concept of a portal into a celebrity's head is interesting enough, but Kaufman wants to explore what an unappreciated puppeteer can do with it. Throwing in the quirky Mertin- Flemmer Building, the bizarre Lestercorp, Craig's avant-garde puppetry, and Lotte's incredible epiphany raises the bar quite high. Even just the name "Mertin-Flemmer" is funny, especially because they don't know who Flemmer was.
Being John Malkovich is packed with big name talent, but it's remarkable that the actors can disguise themselves so well. John Cusack adds a beard and long, scraggly hair to his usual appearance and he vanishes. Cameron Diaz, so hot in The Mask and so sunny and sexy in There's Something About Mary becomes a frizzy brunette with no makeup and she too vanishes. Catherine Keener and Malkovich himself are the only ones who retain any glimmer of their usual appearance. It is a credit to Diaz and Cusack both that they can so completely distance themselves from past roles.
For such an unusual movie, it's not so surprising to see some unusual extras on the DVD. Not every disc includes footage of the director losing lunch in the street. This is the apparently abortive end of "an interview with director spike jonze". Lance Bangs directed this and two other video segments on the disc, totalling about fifteen minutes. The camera work is unsteady, and occasionally the video quality slips, but the content is certainly interesting, even allowing us to meet Phil Huber, the puppeteer. The marvelous 7 1/2 floor orientation video and Malkovich television special also put in appearances. I'm surprised to find four television commercials and a theatrical trailer, none of which I'd previously seen. I found the collection of Jonze's photographs from the shoot to be only vaguely interesting because it is supplied entirely without comment. The unidentifiable faces should have names to go with them. Ironically, Jonze has elected to let the general public apply their own captions to these pictures on one of the BJM websites. See Spike's photo ablum [sic] for yourself. Cast and filmmaker biographies on the disc are surprisingly thorough, but are limited to the cast primaries, the director, and the writer.
The disc's menu design is largely excellent, with one notable exception. The scene selector, at a mere two chapters per screen, is cumbersome. The pairs of scenes are shown as two rows at the bottom of each screen, but there is no vertical movement between the rows. There are arrows in the background that vaguely hint at this, but not so clearly as to overcome the confusion. This is made worse by the immediate movement from screen to screen, as opposed to navigating quickly to the right pair and using the select button. Fortunately, the text and selection indicators are always clear. The menus also have a few subtle jokes of their own, heightening the charm of the disc.