Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich is one of those features that made quite a big impact on my film journey when I finally started looking at cinema as a proper hobby. It was also the start of a successful career for one of the US's more interesting directors, even when his recent output didn't really do it for me anymore. Maybe that's why I was a little hesitant to revisit one of my oldest favorites, or maybe I was just worried that it wouldn't be quite as weird and novel as I remembered it to be. Well, all that worry was for naught, this film is still certified bonkers.
Like most people, I grew up with Hollywood cinema. Unless you had access to proper video stores (and were willing to put in the effort and the dough), that was all there was really. The advent of the internet changed things for a lot of people. Piracy uprooted a stagnant industry and it became much easier to access the films you were actually curious about seeing. Being John Malkovich was the type of film I might not have tried if the video store had been my only viable option, which is a real shame knowing it became one of my earliest favorites. It would take years before the industry finally caught on (and they're probably still not quite there yet), but at least things are better now.
Spike Jonze made a name for himself directing music videos, and he brought a bit of that world with him when he made Being John Malkovich. The film is a little fragmented, sprinkled with original ideas and concepts that are there just to liven up a couple of successive scenes. It may not be too apparent as the main storyline is bonkers enough as is and the film keeps on getting crazier as it progresses, but I'm not complaining. I'd forgotten quite a bit of the specifics over the years and it was a real trip going through it again from start to finish. One of the reasons why this film was just as good on rewatch.
Craig is a washed-up puppeteer, his wife Lotte is a dedicated veterinarian. To keep the cash flowing in, Craig takes on a job as a filer. At his new job, he discovers a boarded-up door that leads him into a secret tunnel. When he enters the tunnel he is suddenly sucked into the mind of John Malkovich, a celebrated actor. Together with a colleague, Craig starts a little business that allows people to be Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time, after which they are ejected from his mind again. Things get complicated when Lotte falls in love with his colleague, his colleague falls in love with Lotte inside Malkovich and Craig learns to control Malkovich.
Spike Jonze includes some very fun visual gags (like the 7 1/2th floor) and the cinematography feels deliberate and well thought out, but like many of its US contemporaries, it also looks a little dim and unpronounced. It's something I've noticed before when rewatching my 90s US favorites, and it stands in shrill contrast with the cinema of the 00s. Colors rarely pop and the lighting tends to be a bit bland. It's certainly not the prettiest look (though it's not quite as bad as 70s cinema) and Jonze does make a clear effort to keep things visually interesting, but two decades later it just feels a little lacking.
The soundtrack is a little inconspicuous, but it does its part in setting the mood. It's a rather nervous score that slowly builds up the tension and crawls under your skin, sadly, it never really takes center stage or takes an active part in orienting the film. I think a more pronounced score would've helped to further elevate the styling and to make an even bigger impact, but it's hard to fault a score when it does add to the overall experience. Maybe it's just that I expected more from someone who made his name directing music videos.
The cast is solid, with John Malkovich (as himself) standing out the most. He's not really a lead character, but whenever he is on screen he draws all the attention to him. Plus, he knows how to be funny even when he has to act dead serious, which is a big plus for this type of film. The trio Cusack, Diaz, and Keener also do a very good job, which was reassuring as I'm not really a big fan of any of them. Each has a good handle on their character and they all manage to keep them somewhat relatable, even when the film starts spiraling out of control. Add some memorable secondary parts and you have a perfectly cast film.
The start of the film is a little dreary, it isn't until Cusack arrives at his job interview that the true nature of Being John Malkovich starts to shine through. It's not a big deal the second time around (as it isn't that long a wait), but first-time viewers would do well to have a little patience. Once the film turns the corner there's no stopping Jonze, and things get increasingly weird and complicated as the film hurls itself forward. Being John Malkovich no doubt has one of the most intriguing 4-way relationships ever shown on screen, and Jonze keeps you guessing about the conclusion until the very end.
Make no mistake, this is an excellent film. It's high concept, highly original, and impossible to reproduce, and Jonze has a proper handle on his film at all times, even when things get pretty hectic and confusing. Add a quality cast, some clever writing, and a welcome lack of predictability and you have a film that is strong enough to withstand the test of time. Jonze would go on to make a few more worthwhile films, but I don't think he ever quite managed to pull the same genius trick as he did here. That just makes this film more one of a kind, a little gem that is to be treasured.