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Nashville Scene Insane in the Membrane

What it looks like from paradise--the inside of John Malkovich's head

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  "Being John Malkovich" had me laughing pretty much from the moment Craig Schwartz, a hangdog puppeteer played by John Cusack, flips on the TV and sees his arch-rival's latest stunt--a production of The Belle of Amherst, starring an Emily Dickinson marionette the size of a Macy's Underdog float. James Agee excepted, reviewers never sound dorkier than when they're trying to explain why something's funny. But there's something about the deadpan treatment of this oddity that's staggeringly silly--as if the atmosphere had suddenly switched from oxygen to airplane glue.

For that you can thank Spike Jonze, the wizardly young video director, who has a silent-movie comic's gift for imagining the absurd in prosaic terms. (He made the amazing Fatboy Slim video in which the world's most hapless dance troupe traumatizes some real-life onlookers.) He's ideally suited to Being John Malkovich, a one-of-a-kind, inexplicably hilarious comedy about obsession, celebrity, and the nature of identity.

At one level, Being John Malkovich is the story of a triangle involving puppeteer Cusack, his frumpy wife (an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), and his malicious dream girl, played with venomous relish by Catherine Keener. Basically, though, it's a slamming-doors farce--only the slamming doors all lead directly into the brain of actor John Malkovich.

Since a genuinely novel movie idea comes along about as often as Kahoutek, that's all you should know about the plot--except that it keeps topping its screwball conceits. Underlying Charlie Kaufman's ingenious script are a number of surprisingly resonant riffs, from celebrities as fantasy vessels to the appeal of virtual reality as an all-purpose painkiller. Only when the movie's over do you notice how neatly the script has set up puppeteering as a metaphor for obsession, and how slyly it keeps extending that metaphor. And if that doesn't convince you to buy a ticket, hey--did I mention Orson Bean?

The movie sours briefly when Craig's obsession spirals out of control; the tone veers close to clammy self-pity. But Cusack and Diaz have scarcely been better, and around every corner some marvelous bit player pops up--like Mary Kay Place as a secretary with a hang-up about speech impediments, or the Real-Life Hollywood Actor who shows up in a very funny self-parody. As for the guest of honor himself, John Malkovich, he's a great sport, and he fits in perfectly with the movie's spirit--i.e., he does some of the goofiest things I've ever seen on film with a miraculously straight face. You can argue the movie wouldn't work with an actor who's more glamorous or notorious. Even so, we can still hold out hope for Being Charlie Sheen. --Jim Ridley

Chin music

When Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce was asked recently why she felt the need to make a narrative film about Teena Brandon, whose experience was well-covered in the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Peirce had a good response. She said she wanted to bring Brandon to life, so that audiences could see him as more than just pictures and transcripts in a police report. But why exactly did noted horror director Wes Craven decide to branch into conventional drama by adapting an Oscar-winning documentary, Small Wonders, into the big-budget feature Music of the Heart? The subject of Small Wonders, music teacher Roberta Guaspari, is fully alive in the original film--so much so that even the great Meryl Streep's interpretation of her is soft and lifeless by comparison.

What Craven offers, then, with the aid of a screenplay by A Walk on the Moon scribe Pamela Gray, is little more than explanations and motivations--a blueprint for everything about Guaspari that seemed unusual or difficult in Small Wonders. The documentary introduces Guaspari as the instructor for an innovative East Harlem music program that attempts to teach selected students how to play the violin. The story of both films is sparked by a cut in funding for the arts in public education, which leads to a big benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, where violin greats from Itzhak Perlman to Isaac Stern offer support for Roberta's kids.

I'm sure Craven wanted to adapt Small Wonders because he wanted to bring the stirring story to a wider audience. That's noble enough, and it is likely that people who haven't seen the earlier project will be suitably delighted and moved by Music of the Heart, which is fine. But it's unlikely they'll feel the connection to their own life experiences that Small Wonders offers.

Small Wonders is mostly about how to get to Carnegie Hall--which is, of course, practice, practice, practice. The documentary doesn't shy away from showing what a hardcase Guaspari can be, screaming at her students and threatening to drop them (or actually dropping them) from the program, while at same time eliciting the sort of miraculous performances that will spark memories for any eager student who ever had a committed teacher.

Craven, Gray, and Streep give us the scary side of Roberta too, but they soften it with plenty of smiles and lots of backstory. They show us Guaspari's tough divorce, and the hardships of subsequent single motherhood. More gallingly, they give Roberta an unnecessary foil--an officious, condescending fellow music teacher whose blatantly dull methods are supposed to accentuate how brilliant Guaspari is. Except that nothing Guaspari does in the classroom is inherently exceptional. She's merely a hard taskmaster who understands that in music, discipline leads to harmony, which leads to a feeling of accomplishment for her students. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that. --Noel Murray

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