John Malkovich started his career in 1976 at Steppenwolf in Chicago, making a startling New York debut with their 1980 transfer of Sam Shepard's True West. Malkovich returned in 1984 as director of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, and hit Broadway later that year as Biff in the Dustin Hoffman "Death of a Salesman." That same year he made two arresting screen appearances, in "Places in the Heart" and "The Killing Fields."
Malkovich has always been a distinctive actor, to say the least. This does not quite explain how someone — the someone being screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — came up with the 1999 film Being John Malkovich [Criterion]. "Being Cary Grant" or "Being Marlon Brando" might seem far likelier; despite his sterling credits, Malkovich was certainly not a household word. Adding to the strangeness of the film was the casting of John Malkovich as "John Horatio Malkovich," the scenarist's fabrication of a Malkovich character.
Oddest thing about this decidedly odd project is how mesmerizingly good it is. For years, several images have remained with me like half-lived dreams: the notion of the 7-1/2 floor; and the transport shoot which takes travelers into Malkovich's head, for fifteen minutes, and then dumps them with a thud beside the New Jersey Turnpike. I have long avoided revisiting the movie, not wanting to be disappointed if what I originally found so special seemed pale upon a second viewing. With "Being John Malkovich" now on Blu-ray, the time was right.
It turns out that the film is every bit as impressive. Kaufman and director Spike Jonze create an extraordinary world; you sit there thinking--at least, I sat there thinking — how did someone dream this up? Take that scene with Malkovich, himself, "being" Malkovich — or rather being within Malkovich — afloat in a world of Malkoviches mumbling "Malkovich, Malkovich." This is not formulaic hackwork.
John Cusack is fine as the central character, Catherine Keener is especially good as the seductress, and there is an keen performance from an elderly actor who turns out to be Orson Bean. Most notable, in retrospect, is the hero's plain-and-drab-and-mousy wife, an animal lover who spends the climactic section of the film locked in a cage with a chimpanzee. This is Cameron Diaz, just after the release of "There's Something about Mary." Talk about casting against type. But it is Malkovich's show, really.
The newly restored transfer — under the supervision of director Jonze — is accompanied on the Blu-ray by a new audio commentary by filmmaker Michel Fondry, a new behind-the-scenes documentary by Lance Bangs, a new conversation with Malkovich, a new interview with Jonze, and more. The booklet is less comprehensive than typical from Criterion, presumably on purpose. The centerpiece is an interview between Jonze and pop-culture critic Perkus Tooth — whoever that might be — that is enigmatically cryptic enough to make it thoroughly unreadable. For me, at least.
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