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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 13.41%
Average: 8.43%
Pretty Bad: 3.07%
Total Crap: 6.13%

19 reviews, 147 user ratings

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Being John Malkovich
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Full metal Kaufman."
5 stars

The intricately funny "Being John Malkovich," a funhouse-mirror fable of perception and experience, works on our senses more effectively than any movie in years.

When our protagonist, hangdog puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), and his dishevelled, animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) are talking in their kitchen, it feels like an authentic cramped kitchen in a low-rent apartment -- you can almost smell the lingering odor of cheap spaghetti sauce, the smothering essence of animal fur (the Schwartzes own a dog, a chimp, and a parrot). At the hunchbacked offices where Craig works as a file clerk -- on the 7 1/2th floor, where the ceilings are about five feet high -- you feel the 9-to-5 oppressiveness physically literalized. It's the inverse of those fantastic high ceilings in Brazil, which made the worker drones seem small; here, the offices reduce the actual stature of the workers, and you imagine the neckaches and backaches you'd suffer after an eight-hour day.

This is the world set up for us by writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, both making their feature debuts (Jonze had directed many MTV videos and appeared as the cheerful redneck soldier in Three Kings). The movie proper begins in Craig's "workshop" -- a tiny space where he makes and practices with his puppets -- and the whole movie is a workshop. Throughout, we're made conscious of the fact that we're watching a puppet show, with actors saying lines, and yet we're drawn into their suffering and triumphs, as we are when we glimpse Craig's puppetry. (An indication of the filmmakers' generosity of spirit: Craig is presented as fairly self-absorbed and faintly pompous, but his work itself is quite accomplished.) Kaufman and Jonze push artifice far but not too far: The weirdness is always rooted in drab reality, the outsize emotional shifts always defined by plausible motives. The filmmakers are sly enough to know why we go to movies -- to be someone else, passively, vicariously, feel what they feel -- and the movie itself proceeds from that premise.

And perhaps the largest irony in a movie full of them is that probably no moviegoer in history has ever sought to feel what John Malkovich feels -- the cold sardonic hipster, the mystery man, the moral blank who keeps you at arm's length and laughs at you for watching him. Malkovich makes it impossible for us to enjoy him except at a considerable distance. So of course he's the perfect marionette for this mad puppet show. Behind a heavy file cabinet at work, Craig discovers a portal into the head, the consciousness, of John Malkovich. The square hole suggests a TV screen or movie screen; the portal is long and, well, womblike. Craig crawls through the wet and muddy portal and is violently sucked into Malkovich's everyday experiences for 15 minutes, after which he is just as violently deposited -- from the sky -- onto the ground outside the New Jersey Turnpike. (The Malkovich ride removes you mentally and then physically.) After a while, Maxine (Catherine Keener), an icy co-worker with whom Craig is smitten, proposes that she and Craig start JM Inc. -- charging people $200 for 15 minutes inside Malkovich. He becomes a "vessel" -- an escape pod from the mundanity of life. Never mind that most of his experiences, when experienced by JM Inc.'s clientele, are just as mundane.

In recent years, I'd grown a bit impatient with Malkovich's imperiously noncommittal performances. He seemed to use the same fey, dead voice in every role; what was new and refreshing in The Killing Fields and Empire of the Sun had grown familiar by the time of Con Air and Portrait of a Lady, where Malkovich was merely using his cerebral creepiness to cash easy checks playing bored, jaded villains. I'd just about counted him out as an interesting actor when he surprised me with his playful turn as Teddy KGB, the gambler with an accent as thick as a brick, in Rounders. Perhaps Malkovich had been bored in all those films, and his boredom showed -- perhaps he needs more freaky parts like Teddy KGB and, well, John Malkovich. His performance here thoroughly humanizes him, opens him up to us and to himself, especially when he's occupied by other people and we get to see his spasms, his balking at a controlling puppetmaster consciousness, and finally his complete subjugation to someone else's personality. His childlike grin late in the movie when he announces to an unimpressed audience, "I'm John Malkovich," makes up for all the cool one-handed performances he gave throughout the '90s.

Being John Malkovich will benefit greatly from repeat viewings and fervent post-viewing deconstruction. Kaufman's screenplay, chaotic and messy at first glance, is actually drum-tight in its themes and metaphors. It's right on the cutting edge of gender discussion, as seen in a lovemaking sequence that is perhaps the oddest (and the funniest and most touching) menage a trois ever put on film. Is Malkovich the only vessel? Can any of us, like him, be vessels without knowing it? To some extent, we all are; certainly all creative people are both vessels and puppeteers. The movie is about -- among approximately 79 other things -- the creative exchange. When telling a story, we inhabit the characters and see through their eyes, but they also inhabit us; and those who are told the story also project themselves into the characters and absorb them into themselves at the same time. BJM triggers complex connections and then skips lightly to the next thing; a movie that's outwardly "thoughtful" could never be this thought-provoking. Like the Malkovich ride itself, it's a fast and fun trip; only afterward do you appreciate where it took you.

Some will say BJM goes on a bit past its natural conclusion. Kaufman throws structure to the wind; an hour and a half into the movie, he isn't shy about jumping ahead seven years or seven months. Our internal clocks tell us the movie should be wrapping up, tying up its loose ends; instead it expands and gets more tangled. I like that; the movie works overtime, it plays its loony self out right to the finish and beyond, when most movies would be grabbing a smoke and heading for the climactic shootout or tearful confrontation scene. (The climax of this movie, by the way, has both. And much more.) Craig's quirky boss, the 105-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean in an irrepressible comic turn), is nearly forgotten and then emerges in the third act as a major player, acting as journeyman and metaphorical conscience for the embattled Craig. Transgenderism is explored, toyed with and cast aside -- it's just another way of escaping an old self. BJM takes on a cosmic and rather serious tone in the second half while losing little of its satirical bite. Our senses are no longer engaged; it's a mind trip now. Craig begins to recede, wondering to himself, "What have I become? My wife is in a cage with a chimp." The inner and outer universes are on a collision course, and there is much talk about "ripe vessels" and eternal life. Women grapple in the primal mud and rain outside the New Jersey Turnpike. The movie finishes with a series of dazzlingly evocative yet simple images that express both freedom and confinement, progression and submersion.

Being John Malkovich is a triumph for Spike Jonze, who has distinguished himself as a rock-video artist mainly by not dealing in the same tired flash-flash, Cuisinart gimmickry we associate with MTV (and many of its graduates, like Alex Proyas). His contribution here, it could be said, is to display little or no style at all; he serves Charlie Kaufman's ideas, knowing they're freaky enough without cinematic embellishment. A young director who knows how to stay out of the way of a fine script is, perhaps, more valuable -- and more durable in the long run -- than a young director who sees a script as a series of hey-look-Ma-I'm-a-director whizbang angles and smash-cuts. Yet there's a deadpan fizz of surrealism around everything he does here. We're seeing through the eyes of a filmmaker with an amiably skewed take on things, along with a compassion that grants each character his or her own awkward dignity and flaws. And he's working with a script that allows him access to emotional complications and absurdities that no conventional movie could touch.

"Being John Malkovich" reminds us why movies like this need to be made; at its best, it reminds us that the medium hasn't lost its magic yet. There are still new stories to tell, new portals to explore, new vessels to inhabit.

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originally posted: 12/25/06 14:25:55
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell overrated IMO skip it 1 stars
2/08/17 Louise Interesting concept but it didn't really work for me. 3 stars
9/30/14 yelakilla way overrated 1 stars
1/05/14 mr.mike I found it OK at best. 3 stars
3/08/13 David Hollingsworth A unique, weird, and stunning film. 5 stars
7/10/11 Cane Toad Anyone who rates this with one star is a moron. 5 stars
6/14/10 Beth Terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible? Terrible! 1 stars
3/29/10 Cody Burdette The average person cannot follow and take in the movie and all of its twists in one viewing 4 stars
10/23/09 Maxx87 Well, first it was thought that black children needed to be around white children to learn. 5 stars
2/02/08 Quigley One of the coolest ideas for a movie ever created. This film is a must-see experience 5 stars
9/29/07 Derek In My top 10. Loved this Really Weird Masterpiece. 5 stars
6/26/07 fools♫gold I prickishly severely underrated "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"! 5 stars
6/18/07 mb Of Very Low Mind 1 stars
4/04/07 Double M Wow.. brilliant screenplay, Cusack and Malkovich here are incredible. Total mindf*ck.. 5 stars
3/20/07 Stanley Thai Great movie! Presents every twist and turns! 5 stars
3/08/07 R.W.Welch Strong at the start but slowly loses momentum. B- 4 stars
2/15/07 david morin i could make a a better movie filming a bucket of shit 1 stars
11/18/06 Brad Bourland An amazing , unexpected vision, and some of the best acting John Cusack has ever done. 5 stars
9/07/06 Jarkko Perälä One of the best comedies ever made 5 stars
10/05/05 Jesse Taylor Amazing screenplay. One of the best of 1999. John Malkovich is in an Oscar-worthy role. 5 stars
8/11/05 ES Thank goodness I'm not the only one who detested this waste of time abomination 1 stars
8/06/05 Zack Very good film. 5 stars
7/31/05 yuko must see. smart and unique 5 stars
6/28/05 R another "comedy" that's not ACTUALLY funny, but plays quirky so no one notices. 1 stars
5/10/05 Indrid Cold Clever but not much else. 3 stars
1/17/05 Jeff Anderson Amazing and original piece of work. CATHERINE KEENER IS TERRIFIC. I LOVE THIS WOMAN!!!!!!!! 5 stars
11/06/04 Kris Larsen The worst film I have ever seen! I'd rate it with negative stars. 1 stars
10/04/04 Josh Standlee It was outstanding! I'm blown away by its originality! 5 stars
9/25/04 Agent Sands The genuine originality of this movie is almost a gimmick. 4 stars
8/16/04 Peter James A brilliant screenplay and one of the best of 1999 5 stars
1/17/04 John obvious points pretentiously recycled - no thanks 1 stars
11/25/03 Carl Handratty I hope you don't get paid for this, Slyder. You suck. she doesn't like puppeteers, don't" 5 stars
11/04/03 Charles Tatum Interesting in a weird way 4 stars
10/30/03 Moparman I heard this movie was good. Bought it on PPV. What a piece of crap. BORING!!!! 1 stars
10/12/03 laura paterson pure genius! 5 stars
7/31/03 Nicole Very original 5 stars
4/08/03 Mystique Malkovich!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
4/07/03 Jack Sommersby Overpraised crapola. Eccentricty bereft of wit and substance. Perfs are 2nd-rate. 1 stars
3/10/03 Nevz MALKOVICH!!! 5 stars
3/03/03 John Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich! 4 stars
1/22/03 Jen (probably) chemically enhanced masterpiece 5 stars
12/08/02 Kable Well made and well acted, excellent script but by the end I was sick 4 stars
11/16/02 Big Ted Funniest Film of 1999. 5 stars
9/13/02 Gracy Lionheart Ok, Visionary movies are all right, but this isn't one of them in my book. 1 stars
9/03/02 Shannon GAG! A yawnfest. Tries too hard and fails. 1 stars
8/28/02 Bob MacBryce Overrated but still a pretty good movie 4 stars
6/11/02 Snorfle Overrated. 2 stars
6/09/02 Akira_773 Completely overrated. 2 stars
5/26/02 Nicole Dark & depressing....but VERY funny! 5 stars
3/02/02 Alan Smithee Original, funny.......basically flawless. Beautifully acted 5 stars
1/17/02 Flick Chick who'd wanna be malkovich even for a nano-second? he's butt ugly. 1 stars
11/16/01 John This was much better than American Beauty 5 stars
11/02/01 Connoisseur original, sometimes funny, but often dull and confusing 4 stars
8/29/01 Sarah I felt my life draining out of me, what was this crap? 1 stars
8/29/01 Gary The slow pace was disappointing, but still an original and funny movie. 4 stars
5/28/01 J Overrated & disappointing but not a bad movie. BETTER OFF DEAD is still cusack's best movie 3 stars
4/11/01 the?girl haven't stopped thinking about this movie since I saw it last night. Brilliant and original 5 stars
3/19/01 J.Arcane Where was it's fucking Oscars? 5 stars
3/06/01 Scott Definately not for everyone but I found it to be very fresh and intriguing. 5 stars
2/21/01 Rocket Boy Wild, outrageous, profound, one-of-a-kind comedy 5 stars
2/20/01 Mark Tucker Good to see something different from America. It works and is damn good too 5 stars
2/01/01 Dan Waldman Thouroughly original, unpredictable & funny. 5 stars
2/01/01 Vivien Leung inventive, bizarre and special 5 stars
1/22/01 jmr one of the most interesting and inventive movies ever 5 stars
12/27/00 the Grinch Different? Yes. Good? Ehhhh.... 3 stars
12/01/00 Charlie it's fuckin' genius man! 5 stars
11/21/00 The Bill Head Superb, original story which has wonderful acting/directing..One of the best of the 90s. 5 stars
11/14/00 Elvisfan Not that big a deal, not that clever, certainly not that funny, but not horrible either 3 stars
11/12/00 biggun great script - could have been great with a different director 3 stars
10/13/00 Fishsticks Brilliant and unmissable. Watch the roof..... 5 stars
9/10/00 SmokeSerpent Kickass 5 stars
9/09/00 neilb weird idea, but pulled off brilliantly 5 stars
9/09/00 Jed The cast was mostly good it is kinda funny but overall seriously overrated. 3 stars
9/01/00 Rosenberg One of the most sureal, funny movies of the year, until the end. 5 stars
7/27/00 Overflow Bitch Wow !!! Thoroughly entertaining !! 5 stars
5/16/00 Jenifer BEST MOVIE I HAVE SEEN IN A LONG TIME 5 stars
5/09/00 Monday Morning Fresh, original, superbitchin'! 5 stars
4/28/00 Jason Kallelis As messed up as it is awesome. Very impressive. 5 stars
4/24/00 Matt Sabian Excellent! Very different, but many ways to view it. Best movie seen in a LONG time. 5 stars
4/10/00 Add Good not great, over rated but worth seeing just because it tries 2b different 4 stars
3/27/00 perverted pixie Outstandingly original! The cinema audience were all utterly enchanted 5 stars
3/24/00 Lesley so different - got me sucked in 4 stars
3/01/00 PhilmPhreak Different and interesting 4 stars
2/17/00 Starla Wow! Very unconventional and surprising. Somehow just manages to keep from falling apart. 4 stars
2/12/00 Skye Chapman anything this different can't be bad, can it? 5 stars
2/10/00 MarshyMan So intelligent, funny, detailed and outstandingly entertaining its in a class of its own. 5 stars
2/09/00 Matthew Smith even funnier the second time around 5 stars
2/08/00 shawn B Best movie of the year 5 stars
2/07/00 Jennifer Weng You have J. M. in it and it's great, make it about him and it's unbelieveable!!! Awesome!!! 5 stars
1/28/00 Jono Nicholas Absolutely Brilliant 5 stars
1/18/00 Stephanie Bond Brilliant but totally tripped out 5 stars
1/17/00 Mic Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich?(Being John Malkovich?) Malkovich Malkovich!(Awesome movie!) 5 stars
1/15/00 Movie Maniac - Kev Weirdest movie, a LOT of unsaid insight, thoughts. Not what I expected - brilliant. 4 stars
1/12/00 Leslie This was quite entertaining. An offbeat movie, which made it great. 5 stars
1/06/00 Chris Wheeler Malkovich? 5 stars
1/06/00 Chuck Puchala Malkovich!!!! 5 stars
1/06/00 Chris Wheeler Malkovich? 5 stars
1/05/00 Joel Harwood ONE OF 2000 BEST 5 stars
1/02/00 Nice Guy Eddie Best movie of the year. Go see this before it leaves the theatres! 5 stars
12/29/99 jenn "Blu Smrf" this is the greatest movie i have seen in years, totally awsome, hell yeah!!! 5 stars
12/28/99 Matthew Smith Hilariously funny and exhilarating, not to be missed 5 stars
12/28/99 Malbert The most creative movie I have seen all year, totally awesome! 5 stars
12/27/99 anna mak the most interesting and original film in ages 5 stars
12/18/99 Zeitgeist The writers of this film are either creative geniuses or are on large quantities of LSD 5 stars
12/18/99 Dick Laurent Very creative film! Reminded me on Terry Gilliam's "Brazil"! 5 stars
12/17/99 Heather If only there were more freaky movies like this, loved the hilarious sex scenes 5 stars
12/17/99 Fork Thinking man's freakazoid. Who are you? Who cares? Good question. 4 stars
12/09/99 [KingMob] Dwah.. one of the trippyest movies of the year. 5 stars
12/08/99 JonnyAngel Being Jon Jackson, now that would be a movie!! 5 stars
12/07/99 Demure33 This movie raves with imagination & if you look closely, metaphysics 5 stars
12/06/99 Ami the wonderbread If only I could be JOhn Malkovich for 15 minutes! Fantastic! 5 stars
12/02/99 Carlos G. Lamas Fall '99 will be remembered for mind trips in cinema, and "Malkovich" will top the list. 5 stars
11/30/99 Queen of the Amazon Vamps The greatest part of this movie is women fucking women as men! Suck my dick too ;) 5 stars
11/25/99 Mr. X Had some amazing parts, had some sloppy parts. 5 stars
11/24/99 Ryan Philippe gets hit by a car and it rules Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Fuck the King of Bros. Malkovich Malkovich Eat Me Malkovich 5 stars
11/23/99 Fenris Psychotic and amusing at the same time. 5 stars
11/22/99 Susan Thought I'd love it; ended up hating it. 3 stars
11/22/99 Mickey More Almost too smart for it's own good. Great idea, carried out very well. 4 stars
11/21/99 Being Michael Browne One of the best-tasting slices of brilliance ever manifested into film 5 stars
11/21/99 Amy Fucking fantastic. I've never seen anything like it. 5 stars
11/20/99 JJ Oh what a mind fuck--and I liked it 5 stars
11/19/99 Kriperace Short menu, but very tasty! 5 stars
11/16/99 Adam Wow. Lotta stuff here - Spike Jonze has proven himself to the big boys. 5 stars
11/16/99 Joel twisted and sick as hell! I love it! 5 stars
11/15/99 Zeitgeist MalkovichMalkovichMalkovichMalkovichMalkovichMalkovichMalkovich 5 stars
11/14/99 MrShowbiz Unique, fantastic, a must see. 5 stars
11/13/99 keeba Awesome puppetry! the most original movie i've seen all year. 5 stars
11/13/99 joe chip What? No puppeteers in the classifieds! 5 stars
11/13/99 El Tigre Very original, but flawed. The characters are quirky beyond the point of being relatable. 3 stars
11/12/99 Matt Highly original and entertaining. 5 stars
11/09/99 Glitter Berry Don't stand in the way of my realization as a man! 5 stars
11/09/99 Marble Xavier Hillarious -- the blackest of black comedy, perfect cast. 5 stars
11/08/99 Dax I'll never look at John Malkovich the same way again... 5 stars
11/08/99 Robert Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich!!! 5 stars
11/08/99 entropy weird. a must see. 5 stars
11/07/99 sydney Love it! Love it! Love it! Love it! Love it! 5 stars
11/06/99 Dave This movie rules! I gotta see it again! 5 stars
11/05/99 Bob Maybe the most amazing movie of all time. 5 stars
11/03/99 theguy totally subversive, fuck-with-your-head brilliance, and amazing acting 5 stars
11/02/99 Billie Truly great fun, can't wait to see it a second time 5 stars
11/02/99 pipeman The most amazingly unique movie in years. Don't let anyone tell you about it before you go. 5 stars
11/01/99 watthree Loved it. This movie is completely original. 5 stars
10/31/99 JSM Not a perfect film, not even necessarily great, but one that will expand your POV - d't mis 5 stars
10/26/99 Robin Defies words...must see...again & again 5 stars
10/25/99 jillian george Extraordinary, the cinema is shifting to the aesoteric personalism it was destined to be 5 stars
10/23/99 nootch This has to be the weirdest movie I have ever seen! You can't help but laugh out loud... 4 stars
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  29-Oct-1999 (R)



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