BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
Just listen to the basic premise of the film: an unemployed puppeteer (John Cusack) takes a job as a filing clerk on the 7½th floor of a building (which can only be gotten to by jamming a crowbar in the elevator door between floors). The floor has been custom-made for the original owners dwarf wife and everyone is forced to walk stooped over due to lowered ceilings. There Cusack discovers a hidden doorway that leads down a tunnel that transplants him into the head of actor John Malkovich although only for fifteen minutes before one is spat out on the New Jersey turnpike. One of the joys of the film is the sense of internal logic it develops and screenwriter Charlie Kaufmans witty compounding of the central idea such as John Cusacks wife Cameron Diaz going though the portal only to discover that she wants to be a transsexual and then having Cusacks object of desire Catherine Keener have sex with Malkovich while Cameron Diaz is inside his head and discover that she is in love with Diaz but only when Diaz is inhabiting Malkovichs body. (There is a dinner-party scene where the frustrated desires all come to a head that is absolutely hysterical). Or else a scene that asks the logical next question of what would happen if Malkovich were to go through the portal and enter his own head.
The film has a share of throwaway moments that are downright bizarre giant-size Emily Dickinson puppets hung from a bridge; a subtitled flashback from the point-of-view of a chimpanzee; the two rival women engaged in a chase and shootout through Malkovichs subconscious; the hysterically deadpan job interview with Mary Kay Place as a speech impedimentologist who cannot understand John Cusack and Orson Bean as a horny centenarian; and the moment where John Malkovich enters his own head and perceives a world of multiple Malkovich es. With visual inventivity like this, Spike Jonze has a promising career ahead of him.
The bizarreness of the concept is compounded by the witty meta-fictionality of casting real-life actor John Malkovich as himself. Why, Malkovich (who was Spike Jonze and scripter Charlie Kaufmans first choice) over any other actor is anybodys guess. (Trying to imagine how the script was pitched to raise financing and how A-list actor Malkovich was persuaded to come aboard what is essentially a culty midnight film makes the mind boggle). There is some wonderful acting in the scenes where Malkovich is taken over by John Cusack and gets to affect Cusacks gawky, hesitant mannerisms. There is some equally amusing other throwaway gags like having Charlie Sheen act as therapist to Malkovich (and in one hilarious gag later turning up balding and forty plus), as well as Sean Penn who does an hilariously deadpan interview piece about wanting to get into puppeteering himself but not wanting to be seen as an imitator.
Spike Jonze also gets excellent performances from his cast. Cameron Diaz, shed of the star glamour she usually plays with, is dressed down drab and plain and proves wholly unrecognisable. This allows her the opportunity to do some real acting her affectation of a mousy housewife is excellent and the scene where she realises her transsexuality is absolutely hysterical. Equally fine is Catherine Keener, an actress who is due greater recognition. Her cynical hard-edged performance, constantly deflating John Cusacks attentions, is extremely good.
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman later reteamed to make the amusingly meta-fictional Adaptation. (2002). Without Kaufman, Spike Jonze next went onto make an adaptation of the childrens classic Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and Her (2013) about the relationship between a man and an AI. Jonze is also a producer of the tv series Jackass (2000-2) and its various film spinoffs. Charlie Kaufman later returned to genre material with the script for the quite brilliant sf film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and then made his directorial debut with the amazing meta-fictional Synecdoche, New York (2008), followed by the stop-motion animated Amonalisa (2015).
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) at this sites Best of 1999 Awards).