Spike Jonze’s Head Game: Malkovich ‘s Wit and Ingenuity

Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich , from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, may or may not be voted the best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, though I am reluctantly and resignedly betting that it will be. It is at the very least, for both its director and its screenwriter, a remarkably zany and original first film that has already become part of our premillennial folklore. That is to say, though I am not entirely enthusiastic about the film, I feel that I have to come to grips with what it seems to be saying about our mass infomercial-drenched culture and our increasingly frantic search for our psycho-sociosexual identities and options.

Mr. Jonze and Mr. Kaufman are nothing if not shrewd in loading their handiwork with enough slivers of significance to make movie reviewers salivate with antiformulaic, antisentimental and antiromantic frenzy. Indeed, Being John Malkovich reminds me of Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) in being a joyous occasion more for the elitist critics than for the unwashed multitudes.

The film begins with an uncannily histrionic stretch of puppetry master-fingered by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Craig’s street performances are singularly unprofitable and he reaches rock-bottom as a would-be public entertainer when an irate father hauls off and socks him for exposing his little girl to the sexually suggestive spectacle of Abélard and Héloïse grinding away on opposite sides of the wall separating them from earthly bliss.

Craig’s10-yearmarriageto Lotte (Cameron Diaz) has reached a dead end of mutual dysfunction. Lotte has turned into a workaholic pet shop employee to the point that the Schwartz household resembles an ill-kept zoo.

Mr. Jonze does not play his dreary domestic scenes for easy laughs, but rather allows Craig and Lotte to project the kind of disconnected weariness that signals the slow disintegration of a relationship. Craig finally yields to Lotte’s half-hearted prodding and goes looking for a job for his nimble fingers.

At this point, Being John Malkovich takes a leap into the wild but logical whimsicality of Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift. Craig answers an ad for a job as an entry-level filing clerk at Lestercorp, a “small” company located on the seventh-and-a-half floor of Manhattan’s fictional Martin-Flemmer building, where an elevator door has to be pried open halfway between the seventh and eighth floors. Craig, like the rest of the normal-size employees has to stoop down when he is walking or standing.

There is a bit of Gulliver in Craig with this “low overhead” absurdity, but again Mr. Jonze keeps everything deadpan in this Dilbert -like office. Indeed, Craig adjusts to the point of trying to start an office romance with a comely co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) who won’t give Craig the time of day. Maxine’s coldly manipulative personality eventually becomes the driving force of the action, anchoring it at every turn with avarice, cynicism, selfishness and insincerity.

One day, Craig discovers a door hidden behind a filing cabinet. Once opened, the door leads to a tunnel that whisks Craig into the mind of John Malkovich so that Craig “becomes” the actor for the 15 minutes it takes Malkovich to drink his coffee, read The Wall Street Journal , hail a taxi and try to convince the driver that he never made a movie in which he played a jewel thief. Thus when the critics claim that Being John Malkovich is a savage satire on our current worship of celebrities, the choice of the eccentric Mr. Malkovich, not much of a target for groupies and stalkers, turns the satire on its head. One of the great charms of the film is the extraordinary generosity of Mr. Malkovich in allowing his versatile acting persona to be frozen as a figure of fun.

The great frisson of the film comes when Craig introduces Maxine and Lotte to the tunnel, thereby initiating a series of gender switches through the mind of Malkovich, with the end result being the union of Lotte and Maxine, with Craig left out in the cold. Like many interesting movies this year, Being John Malkovich tries for too much, and botches its ending. Finally, the movie is not about celebrity worship, nor about sexual identity, but about possession, manipulation and control. Significantly, the most persuasive displays of human feeling come through the agency of Craig’s puppets.

While Maxine herself never stops being callously calculating to the very end, the puppet Craig fashions from Maxine’s image engages with Craig’s own puppet in the only tender and touching love scene to be found in the film. Eventually, we become tangled in several tedious subplots about securing immortality for the homespun but diabolical Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) and his chosen cronies, most notably his terminally daffy secretary Floris (the eternally charismatic Mary Kay Place). By the time the tunnel worthy of the likes of Gulliver and Alice becomes a freeway clogged with bit players, a big chill has descended on all the characters. But before all hell breaks loose, Mr. Jonze and Mr. Kaufman have shown much more than promise, so much more, in fact, that one wonders if they can keep up the pace in their subsequent endeavors.

And there is my quandary. Are wit and ingenuity adequate substitutes for what Leo Tolstoy prescribed for all creative works: the expression of feeling through artistic form? For me, at least, not yet.

All About Paris

Martine Dugowson’s Portraits Chinois ( Shadow Play ), from a screenplay by Ms. Dugowson and Peter Chase, stars the increasingly ubiquitous Helena Bonham Carter in a multicharacter ramble through the fashion, movie and media jungle of Paris. My French is not good enough for me to evaluate Ms. Bonham Carter’s, but she seems to hold her own with a top-flight French cast.

There are many couplings and uncouplings involved in the proceedings, but the most striking intrigue pits Ms. Bonham Carter as the Margo Channing-like fashion designer Ada against the Eve Harrington-like younger rival Lise (Romane Bohringer). Lise supplants Ada both at the fashion house run by the aging René Sandre (Jean-Claude Brialy), and in the affections of Ada’s screenwriter-lover Paul (Jean-Philippe écoffey). These are but four of the 10 participants in the professional and amatory merry-go-round of a particularly volatile sector of Parisian high life.

Ms. Dugowson attracted some attention with her first film, Mina Tannenbaum (1994), and Portraits Chinois is not an unworthy follow-up, though it lacks the sometimes inaccessible but still intoxicating intellectual sparkle of the best French films in that obstinately civilized genre. I was most mesmerized by Ms. Bonham Carter of all performers because I thoroughly approve of her work ethic through a wide range of challenging roles. And perhaps my being a Depression baby makes me more sympathetic to people keeping busy, particularly with obviously low-paying but artistically prestigious projects.

The Hitch: Double Feature

The most fabulous double-bill revival program in town consists of The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) in spanking-new 35-millimeter prints, running at Film Forum through Nov. 11. These are Alfred Hitchcock’s two most famous works from his British period, and British film critics and historians still insist that Hitch was never as good after he went to Hollywood. The French critics always argued the contrary just as vehemently. I have always stood bravely in the middle, suspecting as I do that the Brits are hopelessly prejudiced against anything from Hollywood, and that the French generally failed to appreciate the best British acting, particularly with its delightful flair for understatement.

Be that what it may, Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye and the comparatively unsung Wylie Watson as the immortal Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps provide Hitchcock with a gallery of such histrionic excellence as to come around only once in a lifetime. The Lady Vanishes provides an entirely different cast of almost equal excellence with Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, and the irrepressible Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as the quintessential British cricket enthusiasts even on the brink of World War II. Trust me, you’ll have a jolly good time.