being john malkovich

A handful of years ago, television audiences were treated to a minute and a half of absolute hilarity in which we saw a young man being rolled on a stretcher into a hospital emergency room singing “Tainted Love” the 1981 hit from Soft Cell. The emergency room personnel gradually join in singing (the old doctor beginning somewhat hesitantly, “once I ran to you”). They become more and more audacious until the young man’s heart monitor flat-lines. There is a tremendous pause. The heart monitor then begins again with the ‘Tainted Love’ beat and the room erupts in joyful singing once again. That ad with its impeccable comic timing (not an easy effect to achieve in a short, filmed scene with many different cuts) was directed by Spike Jonze.

From that comic mind comes “Being John Malkovich.”

Thankfully Jonze has not made a movie version of the quirky pop-culture music videos for which he’s responsible (though they’re great): Wax’s “Southern California,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” and more recently Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” (that’s Spike as the dance troupe leader). Neither has Spike made a movie of great depth and meaning: simply one of absurdity.

Don’t approach Being John Malkovich as you would an ordinary movie. This is no ordinary movie. The passionate marionette work which begins the film should give that away.

John Cusack, as a homely, discontented puppeteer (?) takes a job as a file clerk on the 7 1/2 floor of a building. Every scene in the work place exploits yet never hams-up the gag that everyone has to walk hunched over in order to fit in the 5-foot ceiling space. The characters just dumbly accept the strange dimensions of their workplace. Cusack’s work mates include the horny and hearing-impaired secretary and the short 100-year-old president of the company who has been convinced by the secretary that he has a speech-impediment. This is not smug-ironic humor typical of our generation. Nor is it the hammy, ain’t-this-funny comedy of Farrelly brothers and Jim Carrey. Rather it is just simple vaudeville-ish slapstick that would have Lucy and Ricky doing double takes.

In this ricidulous building, Cusack finds a portal into John Malkovich’s consciousness. Soon, the 7 1/2 floor’s resident vixen Catherine Keener with whom Cusack is in love, despite being married to over-energetic animal lover Cameron Diaz, suggests selling tickets to John Malkovich’s head. The experience of ‘being John Malkovich’ proves to be an epiphany for everyone who ‘rides.’ Diaz and Cusack each have a terribly strange experience in the consciousness of malkovich. Cusack’s background as ‘puppeteer’ soon becomes purposeful.

Being John Malkovich cannot be taken seriously. And because of this laughs are often inspired when the audience realises it is watching a movie about Being John Malkovich. The premise is so ridiculous but so well-done in its dead-pan, this-isn’t-funny experience for the characters that Being John Malkovich out-smarts the movie-going public looking for goofy fun a la Austin Powers and invites the rest of us in to laugh at an absurd and unironic story.

It’s like a movie-long exploration into one of Steve Martin’s stand-up jokes.