Whenever I think of John Malkovich, the word "phlegmatic" comes to mind. Its not because I feel that this accomplished actor really is sluggish or unemotional. More likely, his mind is sharp and quick and his passions and opinions are deeply held. However, its not unreasonable to say that Malkovichs projected persona is phlegmatic. And it is with such calm or even lack of emotion that Malkovich makes his directorial debut.
The chaos depicted in "The Dancer Upstairs" swirls, like a hurricane, around its protagonist who is charged with the capture of a left-wing charismatic leader in the process of destroying a right-wing Latin American government. Spanish actor Javier Bardem is nearly perfect in the lead, but his placement within the havoc of the narrative has him caught in the eye of a Malkovichian storm. Moreover, the audience, too, is kept at an emotional distance, while "The Dancer Upstairs" unfolds in a sort of mental slow-motion. The film, which is based on a novel about actual events, is also difficult to follow because of a couple of technical factors: the dialogue is spoken in English by actors with Spanish or Italian accents and, in several scenes, the soundtrack music--usually a chamber group of oboe and strings--covers whats being said. I believe that misunderstanding due to an unfamiliar accent is more often the problem of the listener, not the speaker, however, I would have preferred that Malkovich have his actors speak their lines in Spanish, then add English subtitles for better communication.
Other things annoyed me about "The Dancer Upstairs." I wish there had been a scene where the woman in the title role, Laura Morante, is shown dancing. I also would have liked a modicum of passion evident in the scant moments of the film that only suggest Bardem and Morante are attracted to each other. The photo used to advertise the film is something that didnt occur in the screening I saw. But the most frustrating thing about "The Dancer Upstairs" is, that despite its dispassion with compelling social events and unintelligible dialogue, we know how it will end almost from the beginning. The prologue to this 129 minute film gave it away for me.
Finally, I think that being John Malkovich would be neat! Hes an interesting guy and one helluva an actor, who shows that he loves the craft of acting. Hell likely turn out some well-directed stuff in the future, maybe a re-make of "The Plague" or "The Stranger." Now, THAT'S detachment!
Gary Chew can be reached via email at email@example.com.