1999 / Best Director

Film #518: Being John Malkovich (1999)

As I mentioned in my preamble, I have a theory that a lot of the films that were only nominated for Best Director were kept away from the Best Picture field due to their quirkiness. That’s certainly true of the second film I’m watching on this leg of the challenge, that being Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich. In fact Jonze’s movie is so unique that I’m shocked that Oscar even gave it a second look let alone nominating it for three top prizes.

Being John Malkovich’s most striking quality is its incredibly odd tale in which an office-worker discovers a portal into the titular actor’s brain while searching for a file behind a cabinet. Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay has several odd elements including the fact that Craig’s office is on floor seven and a half where the ceilings are perpetually low. If the initial premise wasn’t odd enough things soon get even stranger as Craig’s wife Lotte becomes obsessed with being Malkovich and especially when she gets to have sex with the enigmatic Maxine; the woman who is desired by all the other characters. I feel that it was the bizarre elements of the plot that most appealed to me when watching Being John Malkovich upon its release. However, watching today I feel that the film is a little too clever for its own good and the final third of the film is just a little too odd even for my liking. Whilst I have to applaud Kauffman for his vision, I feel the themes of Being John Malkovich are just too obtuse to be believable and I also think that he’s sacrificed well-rounded characters for quirky plot devices.

In fact the only likeable character of the bunch is the downtrodden pet store owner Lotte who finally comes into her own after being locked in a cage by her jealous husband. Part of the reason that I liked Lotte as much as I did was due to the performance from Cameron Diaz which is possibly her best ever. It made me a little sad watching Being John Malkovich that Diaz never delivered on her promise here and I did think that if any cast member deserved an Oscar nod then it should have been her. But in fact it was Catherine Keener as the sultry Maxine who caught the Academy’s attention however I believe that the actress has been better elsewhere. That being said I do applaud Keener for portraying Maxine as a woman who speaks bluntly and also seems to enjoy playing an old-fashioned femme fatale. As a massive John Cusack fan I have to admit that he plunges himself into the character of Craig completely and he was particularly convincing during the odd puppetry scenes. Praise must also go to Malkovich himself especially in one of the film’s most memorable moments in which he sees the world through his own eyes.

Despite its obvious unique qualities I can’t quite see Being John Malkovich sitting next to the likes of The Cider House Rules or The Green Mile in that year’s Best Picture line-up. It was The Green Mile’s Frank Darabont whom Spike Jonze replaced in that year’s Best Director category and I can sort of see why. Jonze’s direction does plunge us in to Craig’s world and makes floor seven and a half come alive. Being John Malkovich is certainly more of a visually engaging and interesting film than The Green Mile but at the same time doesn’t share that film’s warmth. I do feel that this is the reason that Jonze received a Best Director nod but the film itself didn’t make it into the final shortlist for Best Picture. Ultimately Being John Malkovich is skilfully directed and brilliantly acted but the script is far too quirky to ever be properly compelling.

 

 

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