Damn. I’m normally a fan of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, but their first feature reeks of amateur hour all around. Now, the central premise—a random portal giving people the ability to enter John Malkovich’s consciousness for fifteen minutes at a time—is deliciously loopy, and Malkovich goes completely all out with his performance in the best way possible. If anything, he is the shining star of this, especially in the latter half, beginning at the point when he enters the “Malkovich Dimension” (I don’t know what else to call it). It’s mystifying he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this—it’s such a consistent, hilarious, meta performance that hits all the right notes.
But holy shit, the rest of this is a mess. The characters are terribly written, aside from Malkovich (even saying that is a stretch), and though the central trio of John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener try valiantly to stay above water, they are ultimately let down by a plethora of spastic inconsistencies and surface-level sketching. And, oh, the tonal deafness! That scene where Craig drags Lotte, kicking and screaming, into her chimp’s cage is the film’s absolute nadir, a shocking moment of spousal abuse that sours everything and further reinforces my claim that the characterisation here is absolute horseshit. There are also a few random moments that show how badly the film has aged, too, like when that man bumps into Malkovich and compliments him for playing a “retard.” Try putting dialogue like that into something from this year, and you’d get your wrist slapped. Oy vey.
On top of the premise and Malkovich’s performance, there are certainly aspects of this that are enjoyable—the amusing 7½ floor, Craig’s puppeteering, Elijah the chimp and his unexpected flashback, Dr. Lester’s secret, etc.—but this script was in desperate need of fine-tuning, and alas, when compared to Kaufman’s later achievements, his greenness at this stage is all too evident. You can’t possibly marathon his films and call this his grand masterpiece. You just can’t. To Jonze’s credit, he doesn’t put a wrong step forward, and his direction is frequently impressive. However, when you have films like Adaptation. and Her to your credit, something like this feels all the more like an aberration.
Ah well. Some you take and some you leave. I choose to leave this one; based on my tally of Letterboxd friends, most choose to take it. We can’t all like the same things… life would be way too boring.