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John Malkovich's twisted movies are new on video

”The Convent,” ”Mulholland Falls,” and ”Mary Reilly” all star the versatile actor

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Games movie buffs play No. 472: comparing today’s stars with their illustrious forebears from Hollywood’s Golden Age. You know: Brad Pitt equals James Dean minus anguish and depth. Sharon Stone equals Lana Turner plus irony. Demi Moore equals Susan Hayward minus clothes plus Joan Crawford’s scintillating sense of humor. That sort of thing.

Trouble is, there’s no equation for John Malkovich. He’s been a sainted blind boarder in Places in the Heart, a sex-toy robot in Making Mr. Right, the chameleonic assassin of In the Line of Fire, and — most mesmerizingly — the ice-blooded seducer and walking moral wasteland of Dangerous Liaisons. Is Malkovich a star? Not by the usual standard: He’s too effete, too balding, too weird.

Still, can you imagine any other American actor popping up in your video store in three disparate movies in the same week? Granted, you wouldn’t know it from the box cover of Mary Reilly, even though Malkovich is the de facto romantic lead opposite Julia Roberts. And he’s barely on the back of the box for Mulholland Falls, despite his small but crucial role. But these are both movies that want to attract a broad audience, and Malkovich is a rich, rich wine — a connoisseur’s specialty. He is front and center on the video box for The Convent, and that’s because this metaphysical Portuguese drama wants to attract sophisticated renters in the wake of its brief art-house release. Its strangeness, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Malkovich.

It’s possible that the small, hardy band of Malkovich acolytes were even more disappointed by Mary Reilly than all those Roberts fans waiting vainly for another Pretty Woman. An adaptation of Valerie Martin’s 1990 novel about the relationship between Dr. Henry Jekyll (of Jekyll-and-Hyde fame) and his housekeeper, the movie was a reunion of Dangerous Liaisons’ creative minds: director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Malkovich, and costar Glenn Close (in the small but acidly etched role of a brothel madam).

But where Dangerous Liaisons was a sumptuous banquet of manners, sex, and cruelty, Mary Reilly is a Victorian-era mulligan stew, neither scary nor intellectually engaging. Reimagining Robert Louis Stevenson’s spiritual horror story as a Bronte-style gothic romance may be a good book gimmick, but as a movie, it’s like 19th-century Ricki Lake: ”I Loved My Employer and His Evil Twin.”

Curiously, Malkovich is more interesting as stolid Jekyll than as slavering Hyde. He plays the latter as fey yet murderous Eurotrash, and we’ve seen these games from the actor before. His Jekyll is proper, pained, a good man betrayed by his own force of will. Because Malkovich doesn’t often play decent characters, it makes for a fascinating stretch.

He doesn’t have room to stretch a finger in Mulholland Falls — and still he’s the most perversely intriguing thing in the movie. A pleasantly diverting Chinatown knockoff directed by Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors), Falls stars Nick Nolte as a police detective uncovering military secrets and deviant behavior in early ’50s L.A. Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn, and Michael Madsen are fellow cops, and together they resemble a squadron of Rock’em Sock’em Robots in fedoras. Melanie Griffith is also here, as are Andrew McCarthy, Jennifer Connelly, Treat Williams, and Bruce Dern.

And there’s Malkovich, hovering in the background like a dissonant chord as Gen. Thomas Timms, the brilliant science geek behind the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission, responsible for eeeevil nuclear goings-on — and a mild sex fiend. The actor, in three scenes, plays him as a sad, well-intentioned ghost. He’s so serene, in fact, that he nearly subverts Falls’ good guy/bad guy moral order. Like I said, perverse.

The Convent is twisted from frame one — alarmingly, this makes Malkovich the most normal person in the picture. He’s a scholar who comes to a Portuguese monastery to research Shakespeare’s origins. Very quickly, though, the film devolves into a moody, overly literal Faust parable, with the scholar’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) as Helen of Troy and the monastery’s goatish keeper (Luis Miguel Cintera) as the Devil. As those two duke it out for the scholar’s soul, Malkovich riffles through folios and looks abstracted, possibly because the script hasn’t given him any kinks. Bereft of his defining eccentricity, the actor finally reminds you of someone: Alec Guinness — minus the sex appeal. Mary Reilly: C
Mulholland Falls: B-
The Convent: D