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Wednesday, November 3, 1999

Being John Malkovich

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Little Alice (in Wonderland) doesn’t live here anymore. She’s changed ownership and profile: She’s into the movie business now. Her alter ego, Miette, outwitted an entire colony of Cyclopes in City of Lost Children. Her friend, the white rabbit, made a cameo appearance in The Matrix in the guise of a tattoo.

So why are scriptwriters attracted to the dark humor of Alice in Wonderland? Because the absurd has no rules? Because it defies convention, expectation, happy end? Because it sends people back to the library, in search of an explanation? Perhaps.

Spike Jonze, director of the Beastie Boys music video "Sabotage," who makes his feature film debut with Being John Malkovich, may be of an entirely different opinion. The film, he says, is about "New York City, a puppeteer, a tragic marriage, a chimp, a boss, a receptionist, another woman, an actor, the New Jersey Turnpike and a plate of lasagna."

For Malkovich’s fans, this demented, hilarious little fantasy is heaven on earth: Imagine a room full of people, all of them Malkovich, where the only word spoken is "Malkovich," where Malkovich looks Malkovich in the eye and tells him the truth. There’s great beauty to that, if you think of the entire film as a study in celebrity, in Malkovich as an institution inside which entry-level Kafkian clerks arrange the actor’s roles in neat little piles.

Soon, taking a trip inside Malkovich’s head is nothing more than a carousel ride. And though the characters ask, occasionally, "Do you think a portal into someone’s mind might have some great philosophical implications?" they never bother to answer. This way the film spends more time on quirky details (Malkovich’s portal is found on floor 7 1/2 of Manhattan’s Martin Flemmer building) and amazing correspondences (between Malkovich and the puppet whose extraordinary dance opens the film, for instance) than on sterile explanations.

If for the real Malkovich — provided we still believe in his existence — the film is a tragicomic ego trip, for John Cusack (the puppeteer) it’s a much more delicate affair, "like an Escher painting" with "doors and stairways leading into themselves."

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