A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.
Director – Spike Jonze; writer – Charlie Kaufman; director of photography – Lance Acord; editor – Eric Zumbrunnen; music – Carter Burwell; production designer – K. K. Barrett; producers – Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steven Golin and Vincent Landay. Starring John Cusack (Craig Schwartz), Cameron Diaz (Lotte), Catherine Keener (Maxine), John Malkovich (Himself), Orson Bean (Dr. Lester) and Mary Kay Place (Floris). USA Films. 112 minutes.
Update: I wrote this review of Being John Malkovich when it was first released. Since then, my admiration for Charlie Kaufman’s skillful, inventive storytelling has increased dramatically, as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York became even more elaborate and challenging works than Malkovich.
Charlie Kaufman’s script for Being John Malkovich must have seemed too good to be true for those who first looked at the project. The plot boasts the most original and daring comic premise in years.
In this dark and twisted “malice in wonderland” story, heroes crawl down rabbit holes into a world of gender role and sexual identity conflicts. But all of Kaufman’s genius depended on convincing one of the most notorious (and pretentious?) actors working today to deliver a self-effacing, sick, over-the-top self-parody.
Fortunately for audiences, John Malkovich accepted the challenge of playing himself. Or better, a version of himself invented by someone else. In a turn reminiscent of Steve Martin in All of Me and Martin Short in Innerspace, Malkovich has given his most memorable performance, playing a man manipulated by strange and sinister forces. I half-expected him to throw his arms wide and, like Short, shout “I’m possessed!”
Director Spike Jonze makes bold choices himself. This is his first feature film, and instead of making it bright and splashy, he paints it in dull colors, so dull in fact that I wondered if the projector bulb was going out at times. He casts big name stars and then makes them almost unrecognizable in trashy clothes, with long frizzy or slimy hair, and no makeup. Instead of pacing out the laughs and twists to leave room for sentiment or contemplation, he moves things along so quickly that there’s no good opportunity for viewers to go for popcorn without missing important developments. Jonze’s camera frames the shots with claustrophobic tightness. Even when we’re not in the rabbit hole to Malkovich’s brain, we’re still uncomfortable.
This all serves what seems to be the film’s theme: Most people are not happy with themselves, and they’d give anything to go where the grass is greener. Sometimes we feel trapped by our own limitations. And the world is giving us more and more ways to reinvent ourselves, more and more ways to live secret lives and escape into fantasies where we have more control over others and the world around us.
Malkovich, an actor with a reputation for excellence, taste, and sophistication, is a great target, partly because his innate weirdness makes us wonder what really is going on inside his head from day to day. Thus, it’s not that big a leap to imagine there are other people somewhere taking advantage of their chance to live inside his head.
John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, an unshaven, long-haired puppeteer with an impossible dream of success. To make ends meet for himself and his wife Lottie (the unrecognizably drab Cameron Diaz) he takes a job as a filing clerk on the 7 ½ floor of an office building (yes, you read that right). The 7 ½ floor is a Wonderland in itself… a low-ceilinged environment with an odd array of employees who make our eccentric hero seem fairly normal and sympathetic (even though Craig and Lottie have a chimp and a parrot instead of children).
And as weird as Craig’s co-workers are, even they fade into the background when Cusack stumbles onto a small, secret door in the wall of his office… a tunnel into the brain of the movie’s namesake. It’s called a “portal”, and anybody who crawls through it can see through John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes or so, before they end up back in the real world. (Where they end up… well, that’s the funniest running gag of the film.)
Malkovich’s screenplay abandons many comic possibilities to remain focused on possibilities that deal with sexual identity, impulses, and appetites. Not that that’s such a bad thing; there are a lot of questions to consider here. What happens when the voyeuristic visitors to Malkovich enter into intimate moments? How can they use this to get into bed with their objects of desire? What happens when a woman visits Malkovich’s mind? Etc., etc.
I kept bracing myself for the film to become a big statement about sexual identity. Yes, there is a lot of perversity in action, as Craig and Lottie force Malkovich to serve their own sexual desires and fantasies. We watch as these disillusioned spouses plunge their already troubled marriage headlong into chaos. Once the gimmick with Malkovich is set up, the plot centers on how Craig tries to use him to seduce his smart and beautiful co-worker Maxine (the formidable Catherine Keener in a star-making peformace) only to have it backfire in the worst possible way. Meanwhile, the company boss (another big surprise…Orson Bean!) has rather questionable involvement with Malkovich himself, which raises questions we haven’t considered since, if you would believe this, Ron Howard’s Cocoon!
The film suggests that as we sometimes feel lost in their own minds and experiences, we risk a complete disintegration of integrity, identity, and understanding if we pacify ourselves by pursuing fantasy lives, and obsessing over the experiences of others. Further, it echoes one of the prominent themes of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — humanity’s obsession with extending longevity, and the dangers of becoming obsessed with youth.
For all of its comic absurdity, its memorable performances, and mind-bending special effects, the moments in Malkovich that haunt me most feature puppets, not actors. Craig’s puppets provide scenes resonant with beauty. Their delicate features were masterfully crafted by Czech puppetmaster Jan Svankmajer. These figures provide some of the film’s most poetic flourishes, raising questions about the powers that influence our own movement. Are we being controlled? If so, by whom? Is there any kind of life without “strings”?
Some critics have complained that the film is too long. Perhaps that is their reaction to periods when the movie strays from manic comedy and explores the effects Malkovich’s influence is having on his controllers, which becomes something of a sordid psychological soap opera.
And the film’s relentlessly bleak vision does become rather taxing. You wouldn’t want to live in this world — everybody’s miserable with themselves and determined to get what they want no matter how many people they hurt along the way. (Isn’t that essentially the same world we see in American Beauty?)
I do wish Kaufman had explored other comic possibilities opened by this premise. Does Malkovich have any friends that might react to his changing behaviors? What other aspects of his fictional life might we explore besides his sex life and the way he eats breakfast? There’s too strong an inclination here to explore only those corners that might offer sordid possibilities.
But in spite of its missed opportunities, Being John Malkovich remains a funny and creative movie. I agree with the critics who express astonishment that this script actually made it to the big screen today, alongside mediocre junk like Random Hearts and The Story of Us. Seeing this, Fight Club, The Iron Giant, The Sixth Sense and The Limey all up on the big screen in one year is a promising step into a future where the unexpected just might become the norm. Wouldn’t that make moviegoing more rewarding?