Insiders and Way Insiders

Being John Malkovich is a daring meditation on envy. The Insider will make a lot of people angry.

Being John Malkovich
Directed by
Spike Jonze
USA Films

The Insider
Directed by
Michael Mann
Buena Vista Pictures

The Bone Collector
Directed by
Philip Noyce
Universal Pictures

Being John Malkovich is everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a crazy comedy. It’s close to pure farce, yet its laughs are grounded in loneliness, impotence, self-loathing, and that most discomfiting of vices to dramatize: envy. The action is surreal, the emotions are violently real. The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, is a genius at finding slapstick correlatives for people’s nebulous sense–or non-sense–of themselves. It’s possible that no one has ever come up with a more absurdly perfect metaphor for our longing to be someone–anyone–other than who we are than a portal into the head of John Malkovich.

Kaufman’s protagonist, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), is a soulfully unkempt puppeteer whose wildly ambitious work is ignored while his gimmicky rivals thrive. When he reports for a drudge job as a file clerk, the office is between the seventh and eighth floors of a Manhattan skyscraper–it’s the seven-and-a-halfth floor, where people walk stooped and make feeble jokes about the “low overhead.” That low ceiling–a constant reminder of how Craig has been stunted–is the first sign of the movie’s comic astuteness, of its knack for devising sight gags with a sting. When a sleek and derisive colleague named Maxine (Catherine Keener) rebuffs his advances and mocks his art, Craig argues passionately on behalf of his puppets: He says that everyone longs to be inside someone else’s head. On cue, he discovers a passageway behind a file cabinet that whooshes him into the head of Malkovich and then disgorges him, after 20 minutes, into a ditch beside the New Jersey Turnpike. The poor sap can’t keep his secret. He tells the girl, who is soon selling tickets to the Malkovich experience. The biggest Malkovich addict turns out to be Craig’s nerdily frazzled wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who sums up the thrill for the rest of the characters. “Being inside did something to me,” she says. “I knew who I was.”

The director, Spike Jonze (he played the skinny redneck in Three Kings), comes to BeingJohn Malkovich from music videos, but the movie isn’t a digitized bag of tricks like FightClub. Jonze is never in your face: His instincts must have told him that hyping gags this outlandish would turn the picture into camp. He keeps the action slightly remote and the jokes deadpan, and the upshot is that the audience almost never stops giggling. The first hour and change has a magical fluidity. The scenes between Cusack and Keener boast the best emasculating banter since Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, and when Lotte and Maxine begin to communicate erotically through Malkovich’s body, the film becomes a transsexual (and transcendental) screwball comedy. The script has a free-association quality that turns audiences on–they love not knowing where they’re going. I wonder if Kaufman, when he started writing, even knew that the protagonist would stumble on that portal, or what he’d find when he went through. (The head of John Malkovich??!!??)

That the vessel is Malkovich might be the movie’s most brilliantly unsettling touch, since the actor–although undeniably great–is one of our most distant and weirdly insular. You can understand the masses fantasizing about being Bruce Willis or being Tom Hanks, but being John Malkovich? What’s lodged under that thick brow is anybody’s guess. Evidently quite the heterosexual, he still courts sexual ambiguity: He speaks in querulous tones and bats the most insolently feminine lashes this side of Bugs Bunny. Weird or not, though, he’s a celebrity: He exists. And Malkovich makes a wonderful Malkovich. The actor sends up his own preening aloofness, and he has never been more emotionally exposed than when it dawns on him that his smug façade has been literally penetrated. When he attempts to fathom what’s happening to him, Jonze and Kaufman deliver a coup de cinema–a vision of hell that isn’t, à la Sartre, other people, but oneself ad infinitum.

Being John Malkovich should have ended right there, since the filmmakers never top that hysterical sequence. Kaufman seems to have written himself into a corner. In the last half-hour he ties things up too neatly and the craziness–and some of the helium–goes out of the movie. Why do crazy comedies need closure? As Cusack’s character becomes more twisted, he loses his stature (and the audience’s good will), and the climax has too many dissonances. Kaufman and Jonze end up sentimentalizing the longing for a collective consciousness in a way I found creepy: Do they mean to be retelling Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the body-snatchers’ point of view? (If so, the film is even darker than I think it is.)

The last part diminishes the movie, but not enough to wreck it: It’s still an amazing piece of work. What other madcap farce would dare to have a score–it’s by the superb Carter Burwell–so plangent and melancholy? Or to cast that sunny goddess Cameron Diaz as a nerd? The actress retains her essential sweetness, but the transformation is otherwise remarkable: Her Lotte is such a mouth breather that she nearly drools, and Diaz manages to look estranged from that lovely body. Even more dazzling is Keener, an actress who has lately been stuck playing nice, sensible women but who here is all silken curves and withering putdowns–she greets Craig’s declaration of love with a pitying sigh that brings the house down. Keener’s Maxine is so glamorously, tantalizingly self-contained that you can almost believe she never dreams of being John Malkovich.

T he Insider is a big, overlong, and rather unwieldy piece of storytelling, but the story it has to tell is so vital that it cuts through all the dramaturgical muddiness. It’s a terrific muckraking melodrama–it will get people fuming. It’s about big-business mendacity and the lawyers who do its bidding, and about what happens to corporate whistle-blowers in a society where the mainstream media are also in the hands of corporations. The movie tells two interlocking stories: The first is about Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), former vice president for research and development at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, who is persuaded to go public with revelations about how cigarette manufacturers manipulate the chemicals in their product for maximum addictiveness. (Despite their testimonies in Congress, Wigand says, tobacco executives regard cigarettes as “a nicotine delivery system.”) The second story concerns the 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the man who persuaded Wigand to come forward. Bergman watches in horror as his network, CBS, backs away from the story under pressure from the corporate wing–which fears, at a time when CBS is on the block, the impact of a major lawsuit on its value. (Oddly unmentioned in the film is that then-owner Lawrence Tisch had his own tobacco company, Lorillard, and had separate dealings with Brown & Williamson.)

We’re used to hearing tales of witnesses, informants, or whistle-blowers who are urged to come forward and then, after they do, are “hung out to dry”–i.e., left unprotected by the agents who approached and exploited them. What gives this version its kick–and what has made it fodder for columnists for almost six months–is that the people who betray the whistle-blower are among the most famous and powerful journalists in America: Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt, the co-anchor and the executive producer of 60 Minutes. If they could be pressured to “spike” a segment that they knew to be true, the film implicitly asks, how much chance do others have of breaking stories about corporate wrongdoing? And what about news personnel with a financial stake in their companies? Even journalists and editors known for their integrity tend to look the other way at their own companies’ malfeasances when they hear words like “stock options” and “IPO.”

But the movie’s emotional hook isn’t the CBS infighting or Bergman’s quest to get the story. It’s the fate of Wigand, played by Crowe as a prickly, blockish fellow with no social skills–an edgy wonk. Already isolated by temperament, he seems more vulnerable than a conventionally nice martyr. Wigand appears to have no friends, and his wife (a nearly unrecognizable Diane Venora), a Southern debutante type who clearly didn’t bargain for a life of social and financial ostracization, is on the verge of bailing out on him even before the bullets start appearing in the family’s mailbox and the death threats on Wigand’s computer. You can’t always tell what Crowe is doing–his opacity is sometimes a little too opaque. What’s plain, though, is that Wigand doesn’t want to have this role, didn’t ask for it, and has no support system to get him through it. He’s entirely dependent on Bergman, with whom he mostly communicates by cell phone and fax.

The director, Michael Mann, has never tried to tell a story as complex (or nonviolent) as The Insider, and he and his co-screenwriter, Eric Roth, don’t shape their narrative very satisfyingly. Wigand and Bergman are both “insiders,” and both, ultimately, whistle-blowers. (It was Bergman’s spilling his guts to the New York Times that finally shamed CBS into running the Wigand interview.) But although the 60 Minutes producer is played by the star (Pacino grandstands, but not to the point of distraction), Bergman’s story doesn’t have the same primal force. Wigand’s dark night of the soul is in a hotel, indicted, financially ruined, threatened with death, minus his wife and daughters; Bergman’s is in an expensive-looking beach house with his warmly supportive spouse (Lindsay Crouse).

The filmmakers seem to be bending over backward–even now–to protect Wigand from appearing to have disclosed what he disclosed too early. I admire their consideration for their subject, but in its wake come all kinds of narrative fuzziness. The movie isn’t clear on where the secret report that kicked off Bergman’s interest in tobacco came from, or who in the FDA thought it was a good idea to turn him onto Wigand. It’s left vague just when Bergman decided that Wigand was important not for what he might say about that report but about the industry as a whole. Mann must have had legal constraints that rivaled those at 60 Minutes. The FBI, which responds to a death threat, carries off Wigand’s computer while he sputters that it contains all his important data. The implication is that the local FBI office is in cahoots with Brown & Williamson, but we hear no more about it; we never even know if Wigand got his computer back. And there’s no dramatic payoff with the chillingly satanic tobacco company president (Michael Gambon) whose threats first make Wigand think about going public. Given how many lawyers must have vetted this thing, it’s probably an achievement that Mann got as much as he did on the screen.

Should Mike Wallace be pissed off? Depends what really happened. In a delicious turn, Christopher Plummer makes the co-anchor less a journalist than a pompous prima donna, but he also gives him a bullying force and real charisma. It’s not Wallace’s initial caving-in to the network–“I’m with Don on this,” he tells Bergman–that does him the most damage. It’s the scene in a posh restaurant in which Wallace regards the Wigands’ paroxysms of fear over the coming 60 Minutes interview with aristocratic contempt. He says, “Who are these people?”–which opens the door for Bergman’s too-pat rebuke: “Ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances, Mike. What do you expect? Grace and consistency?” It’s Wallace’s lack of interest in Wigand’s story–the movie’s most powerful–that damns him in the audience’s eyes.

The Insider doesn’t note a couple of key, maybe hopeful ironies. The first is that CBS’s “spiking” of the interview turned Wigand into an even bigger story than he would have been otherwise. And in the “Where are they now?” titles at the end, the filmmakers omit the most important detail of Bergman’s and Wigand’s current lives: that they’re being played by Al Pacino and Russell Crowe in a major Hollywood movie, and that they’re big news again.

I s there a less savory subgenre than the hardcore forensics thriller? A corpse is discovered in a grotesque state of mutilation, then the scene shifts to an autopsy room where skulls are popped off and innards held up for inspection. A short time later, detectives pore over glossies of fatal wounds. Yummy. In The Bone Collector, the wily serial killer leaves clues for the brainy forensics expert, played by Denzel Washington–clues that amount to a forensics jigsaw puzzle. If Washington solves the puzzle fast enough, he has a shot at saving the latest manacled and tortured victim; if not, he has to scour the gore-drenched death scene for clues to the next murder. Yummy yummy. One fact quickly becomes apparent: “The perp knows forensics,” murmurs Washington. Yummy yummy yummy.

The rub is that Washington is a quadriplegic. He can’t “walk the grid”–he needs a pair of eyes as sensitive as his but attached to a good pair of legs. As luck would have it, they’re attached to a very good pair of legs and a great pair of breasts. Angelina Jolie plays the cop who discovers a body and snaps some photos that convince Washington she has a “gift” for forensics. He dispatches his new protégé to grisly crime scenes, purring into her headphones and demanding to know what she sees. Better than phone sex! He says, “I want to know what you feel in the deepest recesses of your senses,” and “Follow the instincts you were born with. … Process the body.” I was thinking that she could process my body anytime, but Jolie rises above such adolescent spasms. Well, almost. She’s a thoughtful actress, but she wasn’t born to play a beat cop. Those tire-tread lips are model lips; those exquisitely chiseled cheekbones, model cheekbones. Washington scans her file on his fancy bedside computer: Guess what? She was a teen-age model! Clever save!

The Bone Collector is less rancid than the last big serial-killer-fetishist picture, Copycat (1995), and it’s expertly shot and edited. Phillip Noyce, the director, and Dean Semler, the cinematographer, cook up some eerily muzzy images inside the brackish tunnels and abandoned warehouses where the fiend does his/her demented surgery. But the film is still a piece of exploitive schlock. A mediocre mystery, too: It never approaches the ingenuity of Thomas Harris, still the maestro of forensic porn. For some reason, Noyce telegraphs the identity of the killer halfway through (does he mean to? Or does the hammy framing give it away by accident?), but it’s left to the laughably garish climax for the wacko to spell out his/her arbitrary motive. (The killer’s lines are on the level of: “You think I’m m-m-mad, don’t you?”) The only aspect of The Bone Collector that can’t be derided is Washington. The option of walking through the part clearly not available to him, he doesn’t sleep through it either: Every muscle in this man’s ruined body seems to strain against his fate while the wheels in his brain grind fiercely. He deserves a smarter psycho–a smarter movie, too.