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Film Review: Being John Malkovich

A 21st Century Reflection on Writing Film Reviews

Okay. This writing about films lark is all very fine but once in a while a troubling doubt can creep into the mind of the writer. Give me a moment to explain (or, alternatively, the impatient among you can skip to the review below).

Picture this scenario - a reviewer goes to see a film but does so without knowing a thing in advance, without having seen one second of a trailer or read a single line of a press release. Their mind is a complete carte blanche regarding the film, its storyline, production team, cast - in effect everything. The film then proceeds to reveal itself as an undeniably brilliant piece of cinema, one of true originality and rare power. The effect is striking. Quite simply there is little that can top those moments when not a single pre-conceived opinion or expectation exists to cloud the viewing of a great movie. It is the cinema experience in its purest, most potent form. No question. However, it is also the source of a modest dilemma for anybody who pens film reviews - the very act of writing about such a film is going to deny the power of that unanticipated impact to anybody who reads the review. That minor dilemma is facing me now. 

Recently when doing the Eurospa thing in the south of France I had a chance to see the new film 'Being John Malkovich' a month before it opened in the UK or Ireland. Having read nothing of the film in any media I didn't expect much. However, what I discovered was a dazzling and daring piece of cinema that won't be forgotten for a while. Duty however calls me to write a review but I'm not so sure. I could write some words on the film and so run the risk of diluting its zany dancing magic for anybody who reads them. Alternatively I could write nothing and lose the opportunity of maybe convincing someone to see a great film they may never have bothered to check out. What to do? The internal debate, it was eventually resolved and the result - an attempt to knock up a review with a poise that reveals neither too little or too much - follows.

The Review

'Wacky'. A useful old adjective wheeled out once in a while to describe the more out-there and (allegedly) original cinema moments. Its use though is often undermined by the latent fickleness it also implies. 'Austin Powers', for example, they called 'wacky', but in reality it was no more than a limp cucumber of a movie that regurgitated too many jaded gags ?la Carry On/Benny Hill. But a movie has arrived that renders such readings of 'wacky' utterly redundant. The rather original 'Being John Malkovich' is indeed - in its own brilliantly idiosyncratic way - 'wacky'. A true space-cadet of a movie it may be, but it is also anything but fickle.

Directed by Spike Jonze it stars a generously disheveled John Cusack, an unrecognisably frumpy Cameron Diaz and a rather sensual Catherine Keener. The details of its story-line you have hopefully not yet encountered in other media. Nor will you learn much of it here on CLUAS, a policy you will appreciate if you get to see the film (and manage to avoid the media blitz that is surely around the corner).

The film's opening scene sets the cinematic trigonometry perfectly. It involves some gob-smacking puppetry whose lyrical power immediately has you off guard for the sane insanity of the tangential story that immediately follows.

A desperate puppeteer (Cusack) struggles with the realisation that his passion will never make enough money to support his wife and assorted family of, ahem, monkeys and iguanas. Cue a conforming entry into the 9-5 workforce to resolve the financial pressures and, voil? the movie starts to unravel its wonderfully satisfying, funny and thought-provoking journey (further details of which CLUAS denies you).

In his role Cusack hits a succinct spot with a measured performance, one characterised by wonderful touches of madness and lucidity. Catherine Keener, as Maxine, Cusack's new work colleague, spins an air of deceptively latent sexuality, one though that takes a few peculiar twists as the film evolves. Malkovich - playing himself - got an easy ride, although it sees him in a few unflattering, but hilarious, situations.

Despite its flat-out hilarity an earnest undercurrent sits under the bonnet of this film. Themes of confused sexuality, dissatisfaction with the self and - that old chestnut - the desire for eternal life sit at the core of the film.

Curiously a slight parallel seems to run between this film and Pulp Fiction. Around the time Pulp Fiction came out there was a lot of talk about how, even before it went into production, big league Hollywood was buzzing at the prospect of this 2nd Tarantino film. So much so that blockbusting buccaneers such as Bruce Willis were prepared to take a colossal cut in their salaries to be just part of it. I get the impression that a similar buzz whispered its way around Hollywood about this modestly budgeted movie. Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt slip in memorable cameos. Then there's the marvel of Cameron Diaz, arguably at the peak of her career, taking on a part that sees her playing Cusack's rather unhip and, most certainly, unglamorous wife. And of course Malkovich, who shows a generous spirit in taking on the humbling role of playing himself. Many others in his position would have turned it down. Whatever sacrifices they made have been vindicated by the end result.

Need I say it? Read not a poster, see not a trailer, thumb not a review. But your skates? Get them on and don't miss what is one of the cinematic bumper rides of the year. Period.

eoghan o'neill

(bullet) 'Being John Malkovich' goes on general release some time in Feb 2000 (we believe!)
(bullet) If you've any thoughts on this review make sure you add them to the CLUAS Discussion Board.

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