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Tempting Fate 

Character and destiny in Being John Malkovich and Dreaming of Joseph Lees

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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Is celebrity fate? This is a question that never bothered Aristotle, but it’s put a huge dent in the collective psyche of our century. Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze stand the Greek notion of character equaling destiny quite literally on its head in Being John Malkovich, a mad, comedic improvisation on fate and fame that features Malkovich playing a nightmarishly fantasized version of himself. It‘s a cheerfully deranged stunt, executed in a spirit of infectious lunacy that powers the resulting film to its strongest laughs, and weirdest depths.

Yet Malkovich is merely the brand name on the bottle. The story’s actual protagonist is Craig (John Cusack), an out-of-work puppeteer (aren‘t they all?) who succumbs to the fatal call of the dreaded day job. His garrulous, paranoiac boss (a magnificent Orson Bean) suffers a rutting lust for the office’s cracked secretary (Mary Kay Place). Though married, Craig himself lusts after his closest co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener, in the high ballbuster mode she patented in Your Friends and Neighbors). The office suite they share occupies a ghostly half-story that snuggles, unmapped, between the floors of an old Manhattan office building. The ceilings are so low that everybody has to bend over to move about. Imagine Preston Sturges adapting Franz Kafka, and you have the fast-talking lawlessness of the film‘s first half-hour.

What follows is so whimsically, uniquely inventive that I’ll let the most global plot twist stand in for the rest. Having accidentally discovered a midget doorway behind a filing cabinet, Craig crawls in, slips like Alice down an infinite rabbit hole, and finds himself spending 15 minutes inside the head of John Malkovich before he is spat out, greasy but none the worse for wear, along a nondescript patch of the New Jersey turnpike. From there, Kaufman and Jonze follow Craig through a labyrinth of screwball downfalls and comeuppances without ever losing their energy of renewal. Jonze, himself an actor (he was the likable chatterbox tagging along in Three Kings), never loses his footing as a director, and leads his bright cast through the murkier extremities of Kaufman‘s script with a sunlit clarity of purpose. One is constantly lured to second-guess how Being John Malkovich will resolve itself, but time and again the outcome eludes expectation. What remains in memory, weeks afterward, are free-floating wonders: the dizzy tour we get of Malkovich’s “unconscious”; the media feeding frenzy that ensues when Craig begins to deploy his puppeteer skills to remain inside Malkovich‘s head for longer periods and radically transform both the actor’s and his own destiny.

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If character is fate, what will a split personality get you? Perhaps a map of the 21st century. It‘s no accident that Being John Malkovich is opening in the same year as American Beauty and Fight Club -- movies that trace the messy boundaries between dreaming and being, between one person and another. These hyperbolic, cartoonish wonders map a moment in history when our minds are so overloaded with images and information that one can easily grow addicted to channel-surfing an infinity of other selves and lives.

The mystery of identity, indeed the tragedy of what makes and unmakes a person, is also at the heart of Dreaming of Joseph Lees, a film whose story movingly outfoxes any number of shopworn expectations on its way to a singular, heart-rending outcome. The setting is the low, misty hills of the Isle of Man; the year is 1958. Remote, northerly, physically lush and culturally ingrown, it’s an archetypally easy place to get trapped.

Eva (Samantha Morton), a sheltered girl in her early 20s, escapes by dreaming. A handsome geologist and world traveler to whom she is distantly related, Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves), once haunted the area several years back, before losing his leg in a quarry accident and disappearing to Italy. Eva loved him in schoolgirlish silence then; she pines for him now with a near-spinsterish religiosity. Writer Catherine Linstrum and director Eric Styles establish the blind impartiality of her passion with eloquence, marrying images of Eva and Joseph inhabiting the dynamic contrast of their separate lives against a discreet voice-over. Joseph represents exploration, beauty -- every freedom of which this wintry backwater has deprived her. Yet he doesn‘t seem to know she exists (he never writes), so Eva clings to whatever distractions she can. She turns aside the ardent advances of Harry (Lee Ross), a local pig farmer who nevertheless has a winning dash of poetry and madness about him that, by bits, melts her resistance. He plays Peggy Lee’s “Fever” for them to dance to and gushes that it has been “ripped from my soul and set to music.” He also bears a more than passing resemblance to Joseph Lees.

As Eva gives in to Harry, one expects the inevitable Thomas Hardy twist -- that the actual Joseph Lees will pop back into her life, wreaking havoc. Yet Eva is much more resourceful than one might guess, and the filmmakers are eager at every step to find a fresh path to those bitter truths Hardy understood, overturning a number of deadly conventions as they go. Instead of marrying Harry, Eva goes to live with him on a trial basis -- a shock for the locals, but a believable act of cultural pioneering given the proximity of the dawning ‘60s. Another expectation, that Joseph Lees will prove to be a rogue or a boor and unworthy of her love, is instantly contradicted when he finally does reappear. Still another formulaic expectation -- that Harry will turn violent when he sees where things stand -- is at first foiled by the open-endedness of his relationship with Eva, then exceeded by hidden traits burned into his personality since early childhood. He’s a pitiless emotional blackmailer, yet his passion for Eva is as single-minded as hers is for Joseph. Seeing such a crooked reflection of her own deep capacity weakens Eva‘s resolve to seek her own destiny at several points, sometimes to subtle but always to decisive effect.

Is character really fate? This is where Thomas Hardy and Aristotle part company. At what point do the accumulated cruelties of blind chance make free choice impossible and freeze people’s lives into one unbreakable, usually impoverished pattern? Linstrum poses this question in her script, and Styles makes it shine in his actors‘ performances. Samantha Morton has a great, transparent face that puts her in a league with Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter and Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, and she is wonderfully offset by Lauren Richardson in the role of Eva‘s kid sister Janie. Richardson’s flinty eyes and slightly wicked, always curious smile are pivotal to measuring Eva‘s progress as Janie observes her tranformations under pressure. Indeed -- given that character and fate are in such a blind contest for supremacy -- the performances become the meaning of the film.

What if Eva’s mean father (Frank Finlay) had let her come along to a family funeral early on in the film, where she might have reconnected with Joseph and avoided getting involved with Harry altogether? What if Harry‘s sexy, self-absorbed sister, Maria (Holly Aird), were not so prone to burdening her brother with bad advice? What if the meddlesome, well-meaning Janie had not decided to barge in, twice? (The first time, her intervention is helpful; the second time, it’s a catastrophe.) Linstrum and Styles never assign blame, but they keep such questions burning in the mind and heart long after the drama has run its course.

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