Directed by MTV whiz Spike Jonze from Charlie Kaufman’s highly original script, Being John Malkovich is the sort of prize head-scratcher that invites analogy-seekers to cast their nets wide. The most offbeat studio comedy since Rushmore, it drafts the brain-twisting conundrums of Jorge Luis Borges, the grotesque humor of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, and the narrative extravagance of Celine and Julie Go Boating in the service of a pop, Warholian riff on celebrity—which is to say, this droll, uncanny, live-action puppet show is actually something new.
Being John Malkovich opens with a thrashing marionette doing a dance of despair. The protagonist, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), is a lank-haired puppeteer prematurely gone to seed, sharing a dump with his wooden creatures as well as the menagerie belonging to his frumpy frau, Lotte (Cameron Diaz as you’ve never seen her). Domestic baggage made tangible, his dolls and her pets are the least of the movie’s metaphors. Like their characters, the filmmakers are at play in the house of fiction; once Craig spots a rival showing his 60-foot-tall Emily Dickinson puppet on TV, it’s clear this is a jape in which anything is possible.
Craig gets a suitably grubby job as a file clerk on the 7 1/2th floor of a midtown office building. (The cramped spaces occasion much crouching and many repeated jokes about low overhead.) Among his coworkers is a self-assured gal of mystery, Maxine (a fabulously sarcastic Catherine Keener). Craig doggedly pursues her—making a Maxine puppet to talk to—but the movie truly goes through the looking glass when he discovers a little door behind a filing cabinet, opening on a slide that sends him zipping through time and space and…into the brain of John Malkovich (John Malkovich).
Craig first experiences Malkovich reading The Wall Street Journal over breakfast—just like a real celeb. Then, after the proverbial 15 minutes of fame, the puppeteer is ingloriously dumped out in Palookaville, somewhere by the New Jersey Turnpike. This brief experience of subjective Malko-vision offers a new twist to Bazin’s myth of total cinema even as it deranges any sense of a psychologically coherent human subject. Craig shows both Maxine and Lotte the portal. Maxine sees it as a merchandisable thrill ride; Lotte, who inhabits Malkovich taking a shower, undergoes a personality change. “I was John Malkovich, I was John fucking Malkovich.”
Fascinated by Malkovich’s “vaginal” portal, Lotte thinks she might be a transsexual, particularly after she gets to be Malkovich during his dinner with the seductive Maxine, who is playing both sides of the equation. Keener—an actress whose presence has improved every movie she’s been in from Johnny Suede to Your Friends and Neighbors—here plays “beautiful.” Malkovich may be the unlikely babe magnet, but caustic Maxine is the universal object of desire, leading to a romantic triangle in three dimensions. Maxine prefers Lotte to Craig but only when Lotte is inside Malkovich. (This creates a new language of trysts: “OK, I’ll see you in Malkovich in one hour.”)
Thanks partly to Maxine’s inadvertent cry of passion (“Fuck me, Lotte!”), Malkovich comes to the post-Freudian realization that there’s someone else inhabiting his brain. “Maybe she’s using you to channel some dead lesbian lover,” his pal Charlie Sheen (Charlie Sheen) sagely suggests. As Malkovich grows paranoid, the premise pretzels around, at one point allowing Malkovich the narcissistic pleasure of passing through his own portal and at another affording a chase through the Malkovich unconscious.
Kaufman has described the creation of his script in terms that recall those Buñuel and Dalí used to characterize the automatic writing of Un chien andalou. (And Jonze has, knowingly or not, followed the precedent of the seminal surrealist masterpiece by employing a surprisingly classical editing style.) But what obscure urge prompted John Malkovich to agree to make this movie? The premise could only work with an actor so peculiar—that is, with an actor so actorly. How does Malkovich “be” John Malkovich? The movie presents him as famous for being famous. (It’s a running gag that, while everybody knows his face, hardly anyone remembers his movies.) There is, however, ample emphasis on his craft, as well as on the exhibitionism necessary to follow it.
The fantasy of ultimate fan invasion, Being John Malkovich initially suggests a parable of fame and desire. Later, it seems a metaphysical riff on immortality. But once “Malkovich” becomes Craig’s puppet (and Malkovich starts to play Cusack), it’s clear that Being John Malkovich is a movie about acting—or rather, a movie about acting in reverse. This is a theme park for theorists. Where is the identification? Who inhabits which role?
From the new to the déjà vu: Bringing Out the Dead, directed by Martin Scorsese from Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Joe Connelly’s first-person novel, opens with its paramedic hero’s brashly tormented voice-over, as he pilots his EMS vehicle through the rain-slicked, hooker-clogged, neon-reflective, night-scum mean streets of his old neighborhood while the director himself is heard as a hectoring dispatcher. Is this Being Travis Bickle?
Actually, Bringing Out the Dead is a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress allegory in which angel of mercy Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) shuttles between the blasted nightmare of crack-crazed Hell’s Kitchen and the gruesome “heaven” of the emergency-room madhouse at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. While nothing here matches the cynicism of the ER-set musical ad Spike Jonze produced for Levi’s jeans, Frank, who is given to high-flown musings (when not reading Shelley, Calvino, and Céline), has lost his faith. He’s burned-out. He yearns to be fired, but his God-like boss won’t let him go, so he drinks and rants and, in the course of this monstrous 56-hour shift, keeps running into Mary (Patricia Arquette), an ex-junkie whose brain-dead father is on life support.
Frank rescues Mary from a faux Caribbean underworld presided over by a diabolical smoothie (Cliff Curtis), but Bringing Out the Dead is more dependent for drama on the hero’s ambulance rapport with his showboat partners—crazy John Goodman, crazier Ving Rhames, and craziest Tom Sizemore. The Rhames character is the most entertaining sidekick—an ebullient con man with an outrageous tent-revivalist style. Performances, however, are secondary. Much of Bringing Out the Dead is the equivalent of digging an ambulance siren while grooving on the flashing light. The mood is less angst-ridden than hypercaffeinated, as Scorsese keeps cranking the velocity—bloodbath in the reggae inferno, exploding skyline pietà, climactic white light of redemption.
“Every day is Judgment Day,” the novel’s narrator maintains. Scorsese’s sin-drenched fallen world is again yoked to Schrader’s agonized spiritual quest, though this time there’s a bit of Buddhism in the bouillabaisse—karma, telepathy, the transmigration of souls (including the sense of Scorsese doing Spike Lee doing Scorsese). Weirdly, the movie sets its racially coded action in the early ’90s. Is this a concession to the Giuliani juggernaut? Get thee behind me, Dinkins. Hail Rudy full of grace.
The highest-grossing movie (save Titanic) in Japanese history, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is a complex, superbly rendered, and wildly eccentric anime—even by Miyazaki’s own standards. This epic folk pageant, set in an exquisitely detailed 15th-century world of lava-lamp deities and teeming marketplaces, posits an apocalyptic pantheism in which endangered species turn demonic. The theme recalls Miyazaki’s ecological sci-fi Nausicaä (1984), albeit with greater graphic violence. The characters include a possessed boar who writhes like an animated plate of spaghetti, a princess who runs with the wolves, a tribe of red-eyed apes, and a forest full of toadstool sprites—not to mention an iron foundry staffed by lepers and ex-prostitutes. The mystical Shinto premise is an agreeable jumble—not understanding adds to the pleasure. Indeed, U.S. distributor Miramax scarcely familiarizes the material even with the dubbed-in voices of Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, and (being Princess Mononoke) Claire Danes.
Being John Malkovich A USA Films release. Directed by Spike Jonze. Opens October 29. Bringing Out the Dead A Paramount/Touchstone release. Directed by Martin Scorsese Princess Mononoke A Miramax Films release. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Opens October 29.