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[whitespace] Catherine Keener, John Malkovich Psyche Friends: Catherine Keener tries to get into more than just John Malkovich's head in 'Being John Malkovich.'

Head Case

'Being John Malkovich' turns a gimmick into surreal farce

By Richard von Busack

I'D RATHER NOT KNOW how favorite actors misbehave, on the grounds that there are lots of pleasant, polite mediocrities in the entertainment business. (However, like every other jackass, I'm a sponge for gossip about the actors I hate.)

I'd been dreading Being John Malkovich because I was afraid the movie would ruin him for me. After seeing the documentary Looking for Richard, it was impossible for me to enjoy Al Pacino as I had before. The actor's disinterest in learning, in expanding his style--it was all too much like interviews I'd read with the hard-boiled vaudevillians of 50 years ago, with their contempt for anything besides the way material (however stale or crass) socks an audience. You could call Pacino's stolidness "focus." You could also call it tunnel vision.

Would the outstanding actor John Malkovich turn out to be a flake, a wooden-head, a crank? Fortunately, Being John Malkovich is a prime comedy, a space-time-warping fantasy about the appeal of celebrity. Malkovich survives with his privacy intact.

Director Spike Jonze--sometimes almost as funny as the real Spike Jones--has turned an unlikely yet solid metaphor into surreal, fanciful satire in the Alfred Jarry/Firesign Theater vein. Jonze, who debuts here as a feature-length director, also played the hick dim bulb in Three Kings, and this film shows what a job of acting that was. Being John Malkovich is intelligent and, unlike most of the movies by other former video directors, funny and unpretentious.

The premise is that there's a forlorn office building downtown with a seventh-and-a-half floor--the strange architecture is explained with a bad joke, "The overhead is low!" Craig (John Cusack), a good but unsuccessful puppeteer, gets a job as a file clerk there. Chasing a strayed file, he discovers a door behind one of the filing cabinets.

The door leads to a tunnel, and the tunnel leads to a wormhole that leads into the bald head of John Malkovich, where visitors can experience what the actor experiences. After exactly 15 minutes--15 minutes of fame, get it?--you're sucked out as if by tornado and dumped into the weeds and litter at the side of the New Jersey turnpike.

It sounds like one long anti-joke, but Jones and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman spin it out. The trip into Malkovich's noggin brings out the male side of Cusack's depressed, yearning and badly coiffed wife (Cameron Diaz). And the commercial possibilities of renting Malkovich's head to tourists appeals to the crafty Maxine, a woman with whom Cusack has started a one-sided and ill-advised office romance.

Maxine is played by Catherine Keener, who has never had a better part. She's a challenging love object, made up pale, with some kind of radioactive hue of red lipstick. Her tall, lean figure is bent into a suggestive question mark by the low ceilings of the seventh-and-a-half floor.

Being John Malkovich, a movie about a meat-puppet, begins with a demonstration of successful puppeteering. Craig gnashes his teeth in envy at a TV broadcast of a two-story-tall Emily Dickinson puppet reading the poem "How Dreary to Be Someone."

The poem sets the theme for the film. Craig is a good puppeteer, after all. His beautiful puppets (made by Sonoma County's Images in Motion studio) act out an impressive and erotic version of Abelard and Heloise. Naturally, a child sees it and wigs out, and her dad goes ape and punches Craig.

Craig's longing to be known for his craft is granted by this sudden ability to cruise into the body of a fairly--but not completely--famous man. But the fame for the sake of fame is uninteresting. One hapless tourist spends $200 just to watch Malkovich order a bath-mat from a catalog for 15 minutes. Eventually, Malkovich is inert, the vacant center of a love triangle acted out by Diaz and Keener and Cusack.

The blessing of celebrity is being able to turn it off. And that's the problem with this hilarious and innovative film--Jonze doesn't know where to turn it off. It's 20 minutes too long and without a payoff.

Malkovich keeps an impression of dignity and intelligence, but the actor's own absence here as a personality is a sort of cheat. This comedy alludes to how actors are, in a sense, our puppets, how we as viewers inhabit them as they kiss or kill on screen. But where does Malkovich's personality go when someone else takes over?

I realize Being John Malkovich could have been a high-toned version of TV's Herman's Head if there'd been conflict between the warring personalities: his and the temporary occupants of his skull. But the filmmaker's suggestion of what happens to the real Malkovich is too easy. Supposedly, he replays childhood traumas, memories of being taunted on a school bus as a pants-wetter. Is that the real actor? Feline, beauty and beast both? Remember his Luciferian baiting of his goody-goody brother Gary Sinise in the PBS version of True West? His brilliant Tom in 1987's film of The Glass Menagerie? His vengeful Athos in the recent The Man in the Iron Mask? There must be something cooking in Malkovich's head, but what is it?

On second thought, I'm glad I don't know.


Being John Malkovich (R; 112 min.), directed by Spike Jonze, written by Charlie Kaufman, photographed by Lance Acord and starring John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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