Being John Malkovich (Blu-ray)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 113 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Review Date: May 9, 2012
Frustrated puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) can’t make a viable living doing what he loves to do, so he finds a job as a file clerk for eccentric old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) whose offices on the 7 ½ floor quickly give rise to a very idiosyncratic work environment. When a file slips behind a filing cabinet, Craig discovers behind it a strange old doorway which he learns is a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich. Craig’s crush on office worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) doesn’t get him anywhere with her, but after learning about the portal, she gets an idea to charge patrons $200 for the experience of inhabiting the actor’s body for fifteen minutes. When Craig’s pet store worker wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) experiences Malkovich via the portal, she begins a kind of gender identity transformation that causes her to fall for Maxine who’s now dating Malkovich. So, Craig’s got to figure out some way he can get his wife back and win the heart of Maxine whom he’s become fixated on.
Brilliant surrealism from the pen of writer Charlie Kaufman under the directorial hand of Spike Jonze is evident in every frame of the movie and such a fantastically nutty idea is given a treatment as serious as if the pair were making Death of a Salesman. The visual embodiment of the 7 ½ floor, the portal journey itself (like a muddy waterslide), and the visage behind the eyes of actor Malkovich is so beautifully realized that it’s breathtaking. Even the three extended marionette sequences, all adult in nature rather than fairy tales for children, capture the oddity of the personalities at work and play (both behind and before the camera) with a special kind of cockeyed majesty. Jonze also directs one of the most bafflingly bizarre sequences in the film, when Malkovich himself goes down the portal to his own mind, with such flair and utter brilliance that it makes up for the film’s one lapse: when Maxine and Lotte explore Malkovich’s subconscious which simply seems ill-conceived and rather arbitrarily assembled (though there are one or two revelations that offer some glimpses into Malkovich's buried memories).
The performances are all magnificent. John Cusack who has often played the outsider-looking-in triumphs as the esoteric puppeteer who doesn’t take the loss of two women without putting up a (very unusual) fight. You’ll be hard-pressed to even recognize frumped-up Cameron Diaz as Lotte, but her comic timing is still there in force, and her work with a menagerie of animals is also very amusing. Catherine Keener’s flirty extrovert is the opposite of the kind of role she typically plays, and she’s stunning throughout. Very funny indeed is Mary Kay Place as the office receptionist who cannot understand what anyone is saying to her. Orson Bean plays the 105-year old boss with a sly, sardonic twinkle that’s been his calling card for decades. And enough can’t be said for good sport John Malkovich who allows himself to be invaded by all manner of people transforming him into lots of different characters and who allows his career to be poked at (a running gag about his lack of memorable film roles gets lots of play). Charlie Sheen playing himself turns up for one hilarious scene as John’s best friend (the actors had never met before filming) advising him about the “hot lesbian witch thing” that he’s struggling with.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Taken from the camera negative and completely supervised by director Spike Jonze to get the color timing right for the first time on home video, the picture is exactly what the director wanted to be seen in the theater: a drab, rather dingy gloom over much of the picture, milky blacks, and with color that isn’t the least vibrant. But the details in facial features, hair, and clothes (not to mention the expressions on those marionettes which will break your heart with their sincerity) are there, and the image is spotless and very filmlike. The film has been divided into 30 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix serves the odd film superbly with a very forceful and involving use of the entire soundstage throughout. Split surround channels are beautifully given over to both dialogue and effects (though most of the dialogue can be found in the center channel), and the music by Carter Burwell has been wonderfully recorded and threaded expertly through the mix. The LFE channel has also been used intelligently for a few key effects which give added resonance to the entire soundtrack.
About 58 minutes of the 113-minute film is given over to a scene-specific commentary by Jonze’s director friend Michel Gondry. It’s an interesting comic experiment, but it doesn’t really work since Gondry’s French accent is quite thick, and he quickly runs out of comments and just describes what we're seeing on screen (at one point he calls Spike on the phone to get help with the commentary).
“All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set” is a 33 ¼-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film by moviemaker Lance Bangs. We watch sets being constructed, the director working with the actors and his crew (including his younger brother who’s acting as a gofer and is constantly making mistakes), and wrapping production with various actors. It’s in 1080i.
Actors John Hodgman and John Malkovich discuss Malkovich’s involvement with the project and his opinions about celebrity in the 21st century. This interesting dialogue runs 27 ¾ minutes and is in 1080p.
Director Spike Jonze shows photos from the production and describes memories the pictures bring back to him in the disc’s best bonus feature which runs 15 ½ minutes in 1080p.
The two video short features which play during the movie are presented in their entirety in this section. “The 7 ½ Floor Orientation” runs 2 ¼ minutes while “John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” runs 4 ½ minutes. Both are in 1080i.
“Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering” introduces us to the very talented Phil Huber who did the marionette work for John Cusack in the movie. He shows us some of his incredible creations in this too brief 7 ¼-minute featurette in 1080i.
There are four TV spots: two runs for ¼-minute each and two run for ½-minute each.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 2 minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 14-page booklet includes a cast and crew list, some stills from the movie, an interview between the director and writer Perkus Tooth, and the director’s fun descriptions of his work with the transfer on this disc.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
If you’ve never experienced Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, be prepared for a bizarrely funny experience. The Criterion edition presents the film on home video for the first time the way the director intended it to look, and the bonus features are all a tonic. Highly recommended!