Being John Malkovich was an amazing success story upon its 1999 release. Not only was it a critical darling that got nominated for a bunch of awards, but it also successfully launched the big screen careers of a music video director named Spike Jonze and a lowly TV writer named Charlie Kaufman. In case you didn’t know, those guys have gone on to be big names, and Being John Malkovich earns quite the pedigree by being the start of their careers.
On a personal level, I walked out of the movie in ’99 shocked at how unique and inventive it was, and loving how it melded progressive filmmaking with a comic sensibility. Revisiting it all these years later though, I realize it hasn’t aged as well as I’d hoped, and I find myself wondering if it still deserves the level of reverence that it gets.
Mabrouk El Mechri’s 2008 film JCVD didn’t get near as much buzz or recognition as something like Being John Malkovich. Maybe that’s because a big chunk of it wasn’t in English, or maybe it’s because it just wasn’t as good—that’s debatable. But the opinion that it showed us a different side of its star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, was pretty universal, and it seemed like it was going to be something of a rebirth for the action star’s career.
It’s four years later though, and nothing has really come of it. The man has still been largely relegated to straight-to-video action movies, and any of the initial hopes that more interesting projects might be coming his way have vanished. If anything, his upcoming role as the villain of The Expendables 2 is now considered to have potential to revive his career, with mentions of JCVD being minimal. Why was this movie so quickly forgotten?
What do they have in common?
The most clear connection between these two films is that they feature two established screen actors playing themselves, but in fantasy worlds. Deeper than that though, their blending of fantasy and reality allows them both to explore similar themes regarding what is real and what is not, how much of reality is really just perception, and how celebrities remain mere humans with faults and flaws, even after we try to hold them up to Godlike statuses.
Also, both of these movies feature characters who have really gross, long, stringy hair. In Being John Malkovich it’s the character John Cusack is playing, and in JCVD it’s the main villain. If you’re a fan of stringy hair, then watching these movies is going to be the most fun you’ve had since Chris Elliott was in Scary Movie 2.
Why is Being John Malkovich overrated?
The thing that struck me the most while re-watching Being John Malkovich is how casual the pacing is and how often the forward momentum of the plot gets sidetracked by random weirdness. You’re a good half hour in before the porthole into John Malkovich’s brain is even discovered, and that’s the whole point of the film. When you watch it for the first time, there’s an element of discovery that keeps things interesting, and the mystery of how all the absurdity is going to get explained keeps driving you forward. But, after you’ve experienced the story’s secrets once, trying to take it all in again makes it feel slow and lacking in structure.
There’s really nothing to ground you in all of the weirdness after the shock of just how weird it is has worn off either. It’s impressive how ugly they manage to make Cusack and Cameron Diaz’s characters look, and how disgusting they paint their animal-overrun apartment as being, but it also just feels exploitative. Rather than creating representations of real people you can relate to, it feels like Jonze and Kaufman have created a grotesquerie of gross people meant to make your skin crawl. Nobody’s motivations here feel authentic. Cusack attacks his wife with a gun just because he’s spurned from participating in a sexual tryst, Diaz decides she needs to have gender reassignment surgery after spending fifteen minutes looking through somebody else’s eyes…is there anyone on the planet who can relate to this behavior? BJM has sizzle to spare, but little in the way of steak.
All of that unrelatable behavior eventually leads to you disliking the characters as well. It’s hard to become engrossed in a story when you have nothing to root for. Cusack is irredeemably pathetic, Diaz too manic to be believed, and the character Catherine Keener is playing that they’re both in love with, well, she’s maybe the most selfish and evil woman who’s ever lived. None of them have goals other than indulging their base and immediate desires. If you don’t care if Cusack is ever able to rape the woman he’s infatuated with, whether Diaz lives out her dream of being a man, or whether Keener is able to hog all of the world’s spotlight, then all of the tension is lost and the only thing you have left to hold on to is the occasional laugh.
Why is JCVD underpraised?
Whether you like Van Damme and become engrossed in this film’s hostage situation plot or not, there’s enough fun filmmaking stuff here to grab the attention of any movie buff. There’s a one-take action sequence that takes place over the opening credits that’s one of the most ridiculous and fun things you’ll see in a movie all year. And there’s a very ballsy fourth wall breaking sequence toward the end where Van Damme is lifted out of the story’s action and directly addresses the crowd that seems like it should be a tonal mess, but actually ends up really working.
A big reason why it works is because Van Damme is able to sell the speech with his acting. Yes, believe it or not, the man does some great work here that doesn’t involve kicking high or doing the splits. There’s a raw honesty that comes from him playing himself, and he displays some real bravery in the way he’s willing to allow himself to be portrayed as a broken man full of regrets and vulnerability. In the past he’s come off as being a cocky prick in interviews, but the way he’s painted here is very un-action star, very non-macho. He’s trapped in his head, he’s wallowing in his pain, and he seems to be hugely helped by not having to speak English. Who knew he had this in him?
And while the film follows a pretty standard hostage situation story in general, there’s enough subtext going on that you become engrossed in it whether you’re interested in Van Damme as a character or not. The villains all come off as dangerous and unpredictable, and the scenes where they’re just hanging around with JCVD, kicking cigarettes out of each other’s mouths, are so tension-filled they’ll make you sweat. There’s a lot of interesting exploration going on regarding the question of how much you’re watching is fantasy and how much represents Van Damme’s real life as well. Is this really what the actor would be like in a dangerous situation, or is his ego coloring the portrayal of the events we’re seeing? The questions hang in the air and eventually lead to a climax that addresses the situation, but still remains ambiguous. To me, that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s going to make a movie remain fresh and vital after multiple viewings.
Evening the odds.
One clear way of comparing these two films would be to compare the performances of their namesake actors. Malkovich has a lot of fun portraying himself in Spike Jonze’s film, and ends up doing some good clowning, but watching him you can’t help but get the impression that he’s just having a lark. Comparatively, there’s an urgency to what Van Damme is doing in JCVD. He seems to know that he’s become a joke in the eyes of the public, that his career is on its last legs, and he’s very visibly swinging for the fences and trying to prove to the world that he’s not the mumble-mouthed, scrotum-stretched goof that we’ve made him out to be. He’s fighting for survival, and the emotional resonance that brings is striking. But, unfortunately, we already seem to have forgotten his efforts.