Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F I L M   R E V I E W
Departures From Floor 7
a   v o y e u r i s t i c   e s c a p e   h a t c h


1999, rated R
Directed by Spike Jonze
112 minutes

WHEN YOU first hear the title, you may assume that Being John Malkovich is some sort of documentary on the life of John Malkovich.

Although it is a brilliantly realized film with the kind of premise that is almost breathtaking in its audacity, it has very little to do with the life of the actor. The eponymous character is actually John Horatio Malkovich, a fictional construct. This character, played by Malkovich, the actor, also happens to be an actor of some reknown.

And so, this stunning script cleverly differentiates between the real actor, whose middle name is Gavin, and the fictional character. It is a subtle reminder that Malkovich is not, in fact, playing himself at all in the film. He is playing a role. Of course, this raises all manner of questions in regard to the construction of identity -- to what extent do we all play roles and present versions of ourselves to the world around us? But, this is only the first of many old existential conundrums that are raised by the film. And, even though the questions may be familiar, the film evades preachiness -- and even dreariness, instead implicitly raising the issues with a fresh, unselfconscious humour that is difficult to resist.

Naturally, there are some who might find the central premise pushes the envelope a little too far -- though my guess is that most of these folk are among those who remain uninitiated into the wonders of magical realism. Or, they simply don't "get it" and are not particularly interested in trying.

Even for those of us who know and love the form, the idea that a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet in an office tower might actually lead into the mind of an actor is likely to evoke a smile of admiring anticipation. The fact that, after fifteen minutes of living life from the perspective of John Malkovich, one is ejected on the roadside of the New Jersey Turnpike only adds to the wacky hilarity of the premise.

Of course, a premise is one thing -- the execution and development of it is another altogether. Too often, a brilliant premise goes astray, undermined by a "dumbed-down" script, overzealous studio executives or any number of other factors present in the process of taking a film from idea to release.

Fortunately, this has not happened with Being John Malkovich. They had a good idea, and they went with it. Admittedly, it isn't all laughs. Instead, the film cleverly explores a number of darker issues -- everything from the uncontrollability of obsession and the artist as manipulator to questions of identity and self. And, underneath it all, the central premise enacts a fascinating exploration of our culture's obsession with escapism, and the essential component of voyeurism that is implicit in escape into another's reality.

The main characters can be seen as caricatures, though some might argue that they are also quite real. Certainly they are realistically flawed, and their actions, while often extreme, are not beyond the edge of believability.

Beyond that, the filmmakers display an amazingly perceptive and literate eye for detail. The references are diverse and the humor is consistently off the wall. The director also shows a deft hand in his ability to produce parodies of various genres of film -- everything from informational videos and news spots to televised biographies.

And so, if you ever happen to be in the mood for a film that astonishes as much as it amuses, Being John Malkovich is certainly high on my list of recommendations.

For more information about this movie, please visit The Internet Movie Database

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Rev'd 2003/03/27