Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
What if there was a portal that could put someone inside of your head for 15 minutes? For that 15 minutes they could see everything you see, hear everything you hear, feel everything you feel, taste what you taste, and smell everything you smell. After 15 minutes that person would be dumped outside of your head and onto the side of the freeway. What kind of questions would this raise? Who are we? Are we in control of our own destiny? This premise and these questions dominate Spike Jonze’s director debut Being John Malkovich. A surreal story written by Charlie Kaufman, about a man who finds a portal into the head of John Malkovich. You know, the famous actor, who was really good in that film where he played the jewel-thief.
John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer who lives a sad life with his wife Lotte (an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), who works in a pet store and has an unhealthy obsession with animals. After getting assaulted on the street for his puppet show, Lotte urges Craig to find a job that has a steady income. This leads Craig to Lestercorp, an odd company wedged between the 7th and 8th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building, where he works as a file-clerk. When Craig drops a file between a cabinet, he discovers a doorway, which leads to a portal inside the mind of John Malkovich. After 15 minutes inside the head of John Malkovich, Craig is dropped onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig shares this portal with his coworker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), who wants to charge people $200 to experience being someone else for 15 minutes. Craig is smitten with Maxine and will do anything to impress her, which is why he goes along with her scheme. After Craig shows the portal to Lotte, she begins to question who she is as a person, a question that eats away at her and increases her desire to be inside Malkovich’s head where she starts up an affair with Maxine.
For a first time writing credit, Being John Malkovich features an impressive amount of complexity both in plot and in themes that are featured throughout. As the story progresses we see these four characters, whose lives are tangled together, deal with the implications of the Malkovich portal in their own way. Each character’s goals are clearly represented and act as the driving force for the decisions they make throughout the film. Craig just wants to feel powerful and manly. He tells Maxine that he likes puppeteering because he likes to be inside other people’s heads and control them. Lotte knows something is missing in life, and discovers what it is when she steps inside the Malkovich portal. Maxine is unique because she’s the only one who changes or learns anything from the events of the film. At first she wants the same level of power and notoriety as Craig, but as the film progresses, she realizes what she really wants in life. John Malkovich serves as the films mcguffin for the three other characters, but as a character himself, his goal is for people to leave his head. The biggest issue with the screenplay is how explicitly it states the various themes and theological questions, which is something Kaufman changes with his later work. The correlation between Craig’s puppetry and his excitement over the Malkovich portal is obvious, but there are several scenes where Craig explains why he loves puppetry. After Craig goes through the portal for the first time, he asks Maxine several questions about the philosophical implications of such a portal. While I’d normally be annoyed by this much exposition spoiling some of the deeper parts of the film, I found that it didn’t detract from the story because of how deep and thoughtful Craig believes he is.
Any film with a screenplay written by Kaufman is usually deemed a Kaufman film more than it is the work of the director because of how prevalent Kaufman’s usual themes are throughout the story. Kaufman typically deals with themes about the nature of our identity, mortality, and the meaning of life. This doesn’t stop Spike Jonze from proving he’s a capable director in Being John Malkovich. Every actor plays their part perfectly. Cusack is his typical oddball self, Diaz is having fun while maintaining a level of seriousness, and John Malkovich does an excellent job of playing a fictionalized version of himself. Catherine Keener is the only difference to the typical typecasting of the rest of the cast. Instead of her usual “quirky” performance, Keener plays Maxine like an uptight woman who’s been burned one too many times and only thinks of herself. It’s an impressive contrast, especially compared to her quick appearance on Seinfeld.
Being John Malkovich is an incredibly funny film. If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch it, I would highly recommend putting it at the top of your list. It’s bizarre. It’s heartfelt. It’s deep. There are so many levels to the film, that I still manage to discover new aspects with every new viewing of the film. In spite of Malkovich’s increased popularity since the films release, the jokes about the roles he plays are still just as relevant today as they were in 1999. With John Malkovich’s recent foray into the fashion industry, the film feels even more relevant today.