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'Being John Malkovich' from Criterion: The Actor, The Geek, His Wife, and Her Lover

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! May 14, 2012 at 12:53PM

Puppetry is control. So are acting, filing, and pet care. Each in its own way signals an attempt to make sense of the chaos that is lived experience, to grab hold of it and make it do what you want. And each, in "Being John Malkovich," director Spike Jonze's and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's exhilarating mind-meld, fails spectacularly.

For all the well-deserved praise heaped on Jonze and Kaufman, then and since, their wild eccentricity works only with actors firing on all cylinders. Having last seen the film years ago, I could still remember the way Keener grabs hold of the proceedings with a heavy sigh, then commands Craig, Lotte, and the audience by shifting mercilessly between flirtatiousness and humiliation. Even when Maxine's unpleasantness subsides, Keener makes you feel as if you were wrong for not seeing it coming. Malkovich is all the more impressive for being less showy: somehow, he makes his metaperformance — playing himself, playing other people playing him — look effortless.

The ensemble slowly builds a head of steam and then hurtles forward, capped by a rollicking chase sequence through Malkovich's subconscious that Kaufman would use again, in slightly altered form, in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." No matter. It's a good enough idea to be used twice, as are many of the zany details in "Malkovich," from Diaz's uncontrollable frizz to a satirical informational video that Craig watches early on.

In the end, though, the film succeeds in spite of, and not because of, its weird factor. When you strip away the excess, you're left with a simple story of four people — the actor, the geek, his wife, and their lover — exerting control, losing it, grasping after it, surrendering to it. "Malkovich," like Malkovich, is just the vessel, and anyway the kind of control Craig seeks when he pulls his puppet's strings is illusory at best, and possibly even ruinous. Craig knows it: as he tells Malkovich when he demands to enter the portal, "that would pale in comparison to the actual experience."

This article is related to: Reviews, DVDs, Directors, Stuck In Love, Headliners

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.