December 6, 1999 -- "Being John Malkovich" is a very odd romantic comedy that is very well told up until the final 15 minutes or so when it goes into a series of sputtering flash-forwards, sans one of the major characters.
The story starts with a puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (played by John Cusack of "Pushing Tin") who has trouble making a living at his chosen trade, so he takes a job as a paper-filer at an odd little company located on floor seven and one-half of a downtown building (the running joke: we have low overhead). The company is run by a seemingly befuddled man, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean of "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman") and the woman who befuddled him, secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place) an expert on speech impediment, who can't understand a thing anybody says.
If this all seems a bit like "Alice in Wonderland," there's more, Schwartz discovers a tunnel, hidden in the office, that goes into John Malkovich's mind. He finds that he, and other people, can go into Malkovich's mind for 15 minutes, see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels, and then they are ejected next to the New Jersey Turnpike, some miles away.
None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, of course, but the story itself is about Schwartz's love for a woman he meets at the office, Maxine (Catherine Keener of "Out of Sight" and "Simpatico"). She becomes his partner in a scheme to make money out of the Malkovich portal. But his plans for conquest go awry when she becomes infatuated with another woman, Schwartz's wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz of "There's Something About Mary"). The fact that the two women are using Malkovich's body to carry on an affair drives Craig Schwartz crazy.
Well, you can just imagine how poor Malkovich feels when he detects other consciousnesses in his brain starting to take over his body. The story gets even more complex after this. It is a tribute to first-time director Spike Jonze that he manages to keep this story under control until near the end of the movie. Cusack gives a great performance as a sweet, sad man who becomes crazed and domineering in an attempt to achieve his dreams. Malkovich is excellent in a sort of multiple-personality role. Diaz is unrecognizable as the frumpy, aroused Lotte and Keener is good as a domineering vamp.
The story, as I said, is basically a romantic comedy, with a decidedly odd love triangle between Lotte, Maxine and Craig. Malkovich's body serves as the go-between for these various affairs. The movie, by its own admission, raises a lot of philosophical issues, such as who are we? What about reincarnation? What is the nature of sexuality? What happens to John Malkovich's soul when his body no longer belongs to him? It never deals with the ethics of stealing someone else's body. It never explains what happens to the bodies that go down that tunnel when they don't appear back in the world again. What about the conservation of mass and energy? Granted, it is a fantasy, but even a fantasy needs to be consistent with itself.
In addition to being a very different kind of love story, it is also very clever and witty. Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt all appear as themselves in the film, making fun of their own celebrity status and the gullibility of the Hollywood set. Sheen (of "The Arrival") has some very funny lines responding to Malkovich telling him about his possession by what he thinks is some kind of lesbian witch. The film has a number of good laughs in it. This movie rates a B.
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