"Ever want to be somebody else? Now you can..."
Describing 'Being John Malkovich' and its various intricacies is not an enviable task, as this is a film that doesn't quite fit into one simple classification. Sure, it's a jet black dark comedy, but it's also an analysis of identity, a psychological dissection of all involved, an ode to unrequited love and, at its base, a portrait of humanity's baser instincts. First-time feature film writer Charlie Kaufman's best known work has become a cult classic after a successful run for an independent, low budget feature, and while his later works would involve far more complex narratives, the perfect balance between mass appeal and intellectual fare is realized through a boarded up door on floor 7-1/2 in the Mertin-Flemmer building.
Few films are as brave and unforgiving as this Spike Jonze odyssey, particularly when it comes to the outright unlikable nature of the entirety of the characters. Failure in one's life goals, and bowing to societal norms to make a living is hardly a new theme in cinema or life, and that subject alone can hardly be considered profound considering how often it's been examined on screen and in print. What makes 'Being John Malkovich' special is the way it crafts its pieces together, perfectly pacing the oddities amongst the mundane, slowly introducing the viewer to a world that slowly sees its fabric and laws unravel before our very eyes. A portal to another man's mind that allows a 15 minute visit before being unceremoniously shat out into the brush alongside the New Jersey Turnpike? The thrill of vicarious living, even in the most trivial of tasks, due to the sheer undesirable nature one's life has lead up to that point?
'Being John Malkovich' will stand the test of time for a wide variety of reasons. There isn't any stand-out technology that instantly dates itself, as even the lack of cellular telephones is hardly noticeable, nor would they truly affect the outcome of any sequence. There are no one-note actors, as even the most commercially recognizable stars are buried beneath layers of ugliness to make them more realistic, rather than images of sparkling Hollywood beauty or masculinity; even the man the world finds itself becoming in 15 minute increments isn't a chiseled god with a full head of hair. The ideas, both in the actions of the characters, the twists and turns of the story, and even the unique set-pieces and scenarios, find themselves far too recognizable in their element to parody or even casually lift without feeling overly obvious, keeping the material mostly fresh (the climax of Kaufman's 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' seems to be the most obvious parallel).
This film dares to buck convention, leaving nary a single predictable or cliched scene or even dialogue exchange. There are existing rules and reasons behind the now-infamous portal that are slowly revealed to us, and repeat viewings will inform viewers of hidden moments and references to the film's outcome that add yet another layer of depth to its already infinitely unreachable ceiling. There are no happy endings, no ideal relationships or bit of personal growth. This is a portrait of humanity as it really is: petty, cunning, duplicitous, desperate. Through the eyes of a man whose life isn't all that it was cracked up to be, we see his chance for success, and the strides he takes to bring his previous works, shunned before, to the mainstream. There is no longing or acknowledgement of the characters who absorb themselves in someone else's being (and in this film, that's not a figurative term of speech), as the truth is, they're not missed.
'Being John Malkovich' is brutally honest, simple yet complex, and impossibly intelligent. It's a film so philosophically rich that it can make the right viewer see a different definition of life and its various meanings or interpretations. It makes us wonder the meaning and value of our own lives, and shows us the outcome of our deepest desires to be someone, anyone else...even if that someone just so happens to be an actor who is frequently mistaken for being in films or roles he was never involved with. Someone, anyone has to be better than the current state of reality. That is why I had to write a different review, instead of retooling in any fashion our existing coverage of the film. Not only does this film deserve a full 7-1/2 stars out of five, it deserves to have those who have dismissed it at one point for being too odd or complex give it another shot, their collective added years perhaps adding insight into the characters and scenarios. 'Being John Malkovich' deserves at least an annual tribute in the form of a repeat viewing, as this portrait of life can serve as a gentle reminder about the grass on the other side of the fence, the value of what one already has in their life, miserable as it may be. The right character, played with little favor to his own reputation by himself, teamed with the perfect director for the job, off a one-of-a-kind script, 'Malkovich' is equal parts inspiration and forewarning.
The Disc: Vital Stats
The Criterion Collection brings one of the most deserving recent additions to its library on a Region A locked BD50 disc, adorned with spine number 611. The traditional menu navigation and packaging for Criterion releases applies, and this release also contains the trademark booklet full of essays (and a little bit of hidden wit mixed into the technical disclaimers).
'Being John Malkovich' isn't an old film. Released in 1999 (in what may be the greatest year in cinema history), the surreal flick still wouldn't be old enough to attend high school. I mention this for a very particular reason, as I have to take a stand that I hate taking. Yes, this is the first American Blu-ray release of the film (which has been available in some European markets), and sure, it has been a long, long time since the release of the film on HD DVD. That doesn't mean this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded disc has been worth the wait, especially not with the added price associated with the distributor.
Detail levels take serious dips in a small number of scenes, but that isn't to say detail is strong when the disc is at its best, either. Cusack's facial hair sometimes blurs, textures are very hit or miss, and while picture depth is consistent and strong, there's not much to look at, no real abundance of definition. Black levels are weak, and while having no crushing issues is great, having actually black blacks is a must (the lady in the elevator in the crowbar scene sports a blueish tint to her 'do). Edges aren't all that great, and can be downright painful on the 7-1/2 floor. Dirt? Well, just imagine the various debris like toppings in a bowl of ice cream, because there's tons of little specks and blobs, a few hairs, and even a sequence (the Maxine/Malkovich dinner meeting, in the moments before Keener arrives) where the left hand side of the picture has a smattering of vertical orange lines that are impossible to miss. Noise can be a minor concern, and while there's no artifacting or banding concerns, fact is, this could have been so much better.
According to the booklet enclosed in the disc, the standard boilerplate about a new 4K scan, color correction, and the removal of thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices and warps were removed, on top of noise reduction. The only way this statement could be true would be if Criterion sourced the elements for this release from a Turkish bootleg copy and tried to make it up to snuff. While some films will never be visually impressive, there's no reason a film this new should look this worn.
The audio on 'Being John Malkovich' is presented with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, a step forward from the HD DVD release which sported Dolby Digital Plus, and no matter what anyone tells you, there's no speech impediment here. None. The audio is remarkably clean, with the only odd sounding segment (the "dance of disillusionment and despair" on TV) having a high pitch grinding or any other kind of distortion, and even that seems to be intentional considering its isolation. Room dynamics are great, from the bluntness of 7-1/2 to the wide open expanses, with great robustness and clarity. The moments where we witness what someone else sees through Malkovich's eyes, we get great muffling and surround use, putting us quite literally in the middle of his head, with a little bit of light bass to add emphasis. This track is a winner, especially considering the film it's for.
Every feature from the HD DVD release, save for the interview with Jonze and the "Don't Enter Here" gag, are included in this 2012 Blu-ray release, as well as some new content. None of the extras on this release are exclusive to the Blu-ray format, due to a day and date DVD release.
'Being John Malkovich' deserves a score greater than our maxed out five star rating. Loaded with quick, cruel wit from opening to close, without a single wasted or boring sequence, this journey through the minds of some very twisted individuals makes for a great viewing, no matter how many times it has been viewed before, and for one simple reason: it's a modern freaking classic. Kaufman and Jonze make for an excellent team (one only rivaled by the 2004 pairing of Kaufman and Gondry), and the cast of John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and, of course, Malkovich Malkovich, are perfection. This film is a must-own, must-see event, even if this Blu-ray release isn't entirely perfect.