Being director Malkovich

There's been much talk about the growing number of Hollywood stars who take advantage of their prestige to direct movies of their own.

But there hasn't been much analysis of what these projects reveal about the stars' off-screen personalities.

It's no accident that Denzel Washington chose to debut with "Antwone Fisher," the humanistic story of a black man's quest for purpose and identity. Or that George Clooney started with "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a mischievous look at the social dangers of celebrity power. Or that Clint Eastwood often gravitates toward freewheeling stories that indulge his interests in improvisation and jazz.

So what would John Malkovich choose if he took a turn behind the camera?

This week we know the answer: "The Dancer Upstairs," a tale of Latin American intrigue.

It confirms my impression that being John Malkovich means being an intellectually ambitious artist who doesn't always meet the high goals he sets for himself.

The story takes place in an unspecified Latin country. The hero is Rejas, a detective (Javier Bardem) hunting down Ezequiel, a politically driven terrorist. Also on his mind is Yolanda, a dancer - yes, she lives upstairs - who teaches his daughter and captivates his heart. His obsessions with Ezequiel and Yolanda allow director Malkovich and screenwriter Nicholas Shakespeare to explore various sides of Rejas's character.

It's disappointing that "The Dancer Upstairs" is set in an unidentified country, since this suggests an interest in vague qualities of South American culture, not specific social and political conditions. Sure enough, we never learn just what Ezequiel is after, what motivates his intellectual hubris, or what discontents have driven many citizens to join his revolutionary camp.

All this might be acceptable if Rejas's conflicted personality were probed with strong dramatic skill and psychological insight.

As his thoughtful acting in "Before Night Falls" proved, Bardem is easily up to his part of the job, but Malkovich has a weakness for unfocused mood-setting and cinematic meandering that dilute the movie's emotional strength.

While you can't fault "The Dancer Upstairs" for lack of ambition, its tantalizing ingredients add up to a less impressive package than I'd hoped for. Malkovich should select a more manageable subject the next time he sits in the director's chair.

Rated R for violence and profanity.

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