Being John Malkovich (1999)
Dir. Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich is quite a feat as a debut feature for its writer/director team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. At the time of its release Kaufman was a relative unknown, toiling as a television writer, all of whose feature scripts had been rejected. Jonze was best known for his music video work, having directed iconic clips for artists as diverse as The Beastie Boys, Weezer, Björk, and Fatboy Slim. After the release of this film, however, both would become, if not household names, celebrities of the indie film world. Though its off-kilter premise and subtle sense of humor made the film’s release a slow build and prevented it from being a true commercial success, Being John Malkovich achieved near-universal critical acclaim, and more than made its budget back. Eventually the film would be rewarded with Academy Award nominations for both Kaufman and Jonze, as well as a nomination for Catherine Keener for Best Supporting Actress. As I alluded to in my post about Adaptation., Being John Malkovich announced its eccentric creative brain trust as major players in the film world going into the 21st century.
I remember hearing about the movie when it was released, but I don’t think that I had any interest in seeing it. Being John Malkovich is a weird comedy for adults, and I was only 14 at the time. I didn’t know who John Malkovich was, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated or understood the film’s strange sense of humor if I had seen it when it was released. I know this because I didn’t appreciate it when I did see Being John Malkovich for the first time on cable a few years after it came out. I turned the movie on, near the beginning, on Comedy Central, and I can remember thinking to myself, “What the heck kind of weird movie is this?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch the whole thing, but if I did, it didn’t make an impact outside of its deep strangeness. At that time, probably 2001 or 2002, I had never been introduced to surrealism, and my tastes in comedy were certainly not geared towards something this strange and cerebral. Being John Malkovich was simply too much of a head trip for me and, to be fair, it probably was for many people on their first encounter.
The film follows Craig Schwartz (Cusack) a skillful but struggling puppeteer who is encouraged to go looking for a job by his wife, Lotte (Diaz), to bring in some income and take his mind off of his failures as an artist. He takes a job as a filing clerk for LesterCorp, which is located on the 7 ½ floor of a New York City skyscraper, home to an array of unusual characters, not least of which is Dr. Lester himself (Orson Beane). While working at LesterCorp, Craig develops a one-sided obsession with his coworker, Maxine (Keener). One day, Craig finds a small, hidden door in the filing office and opens it to reveal a dank, earthen tunnel. After crawling into the tunnel, Craig finds himself inside the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (playing himself), where he experiences the world through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dropped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Craig shares this discovery with Maxine, in hopes of winning her affections by sharing this surreal and one-of-a-kind experience with her, and the two go into business together, selling the opportunity to inhabit Malkovich to sad-sack losers for $200 a trip. While a love trapezoid forms between Craig, Lotte, Maxine, and Malkovich, Craig finds a way to put his skills as a puppeteer into the service of controlling Malkovich’s body so that he can remain inside him indefinitely. And that is all before the movie starts getting really weird.
I came back to Malkovich after seeing and loving Adaptation. I was a little older, and I was coming into the experience this time with a better handle on Kaufman’s unique voice. So, the pieces all fell into place for me, and I was able to appreciate the film on its own deeply strange, darkly comic terms. While I fell in love with Adaptation.’s lofty narrative ambition, I appreciated Being John Malkovich for its straightforwardness. Even though its plot is completely bananas, with each passing scene only serving to up the ante for strangeness, the film is played straight. Its humor is often deadpan, to the point of absurdity. It lacks the temporal shifts and narrative overlapping of later Kaufman films, opting instead for a linear structure. Characters don’t spend great periods of the film fretting over the metaphysical or cosmic implications of the bizarre scenario in which they’ve found themselves, as does the fictional Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation., they simply react as if finding a portal into a celebrity’s brain behind a filing cabinet is the sort of thing that could happen to any average office drone. That a film like Being John Malkovich could be described as straightforward at all is a testament to the skill of Kaufman and Jonze at crafting a believable, lived-in world, peopled with characters who feel like they could be real. Just like the 7 ½ floor, it seems like Being John Malkovich exists in a parallel world to the real one, where objects and people from the real world are easily recognizable, but the perspective is slightly skewed. The setting is familiar, but the characters’ relationship to it is somehow off.
That skewed perspective is reinforced by the choice of Cusack and Diaz as the film’s leads, as both actors are asked to play against type for their roles. Though often cast in comedies, Cusack was coming off of a run of serious dramas including Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil and The Thin Red Line, and according to reports he discovered Malkovich after asking his agent to find him the “craziest, most un-produceable script” he could find. Craig is a typical Kaufman protagonist, an artist who can’t reconcile his own ambitions and talents with the needs of the day to day world, and Cusack perfectly embodies the depression and malaise that come along with that character. In the film, Craig’s hair is long and greasy, he’s unshaven, and he is shabbily dressed, a far cry from the typically suave, handsome on-screen persona that Cusack is typically associated with. Although he is sometimes associated with the sorts of mopey, lovelorn character that he plays in Being John Malkovich, none of Cusack’s other comedic roles (save for possibly Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead, but we’ll get to that one soon enough) skew this dark. Craig’s attempts to maintain control over his life, the people in it, and the façade that he’s built up using Malkovich as a puppet push him to extremes.
If Cusack is playing against type, Diaz is asked to make a full on transformation for the role of Lotte. Diaz had burst into the mainstream the year prior playing the titular character in There’s Something About Mary. After that role, she was poised to break out as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she did, but Being John Malkovich marks a definite detour into fertile territory for her. Rather than capitalize on his lead actress’s fame, Jonze opts instead to make Diaz nearly unrecognizable in the film. Her signature blonde tresses are traded in for a brown, frizzy wig, while her figure is obscured behind lumpy sweatsuits. Everything about Lotte suggests a life of quiet desperation and Diaz’s subtle performance early in the film pull that off well. Her interactions with the chimp, Elijah, who is a part of the menagerie that Lotte has acquired in place of human children, are both comfortingly maternal and heartbreaking at the same time. While she is adept at portraying a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, Diaz’s best work comes later in the film when she reveals her desire for Maxine, and her insistence of returning to Malkovich’s head to experience life as a man. After her experience, Lotte declares herself to be transgender, and she gains satisfaction and self-actualization that she could have never gotten from Craig through her relationship with Maxine. At this point, Diaz’s performance becomes more assertive, and she takes on the role of the detective in the story, trying to uncover the mystery of the portal, rather than just exploit it, as Craig and Maxine do. Though Craig is, ostensibly, the film’s main character, it’s Lotte who does the most changing throughout the film, and in whose character some of the film’s most interesting themes about identity, consciousness, and sexuality are embodied.
Watching the film in 2017, I was struck by how progressive its attitudes towards sex, relationships, and gender identity were for a film that was released in 1999. While it was far from the dark ages, with respect to representation in media, 1999 was still a much less enlightened time for the general public with respects to sexual diversity. I’m sure that watching this movie must have marked the first time I ever encountered the word “transsexual,” though it didn’t register at all then. The idea of a woman entering into a man’s body, experiencing his view of the world, but maintaining a feminine spark that can still be seen through the eyes, as Maxine asserts that Lotte’s can, suggests a gender fluidity rather than a binary relationship. While this is obviously not the way that a transgendered person in the real world exists, the experience does lead to a revelation in Lotte, and a turning point in her character, as she articulates her own chosen identity and decides to actively pursue a happier and more satisfying relationship. Maxine and Lotte’s relationship, which is eventually achieved without a physical male surrogate, is the healthiest one in the film, and their ultimate production of a child and happily-ever-after ending stands in stark contrast to the loveless marriage that Lotte and Craig were both searching for an escape from. Craig, who attempts to be domineering in his relationship with Lotte and manipulative in his relationship with Maxine, is ultimately rejected by both and ends up alone, forced to watch their happiness through the portal, as it connects to the consciousness of Maxine and Lotte’s love child (conceived through Malkovich), Emily.
The other aspect of the film that interested me on this rewatch was its treatment of celebrity. In 1999, famous actors and other celebrities existed in a world that was out of reach to the common person, accessible only through tabloid newspapers and gossip shows. Now, in an age of pervasive social media, the film’s portal into John Malkovich’s brain has been actualized through celebrities’ Twitter feeds, and Instagram videos. Fans now have a window into their favorite celebrities’ private lives. Being able to actually see through the eyes of, and effectively inhabit, a famous person would still probably be a valued commodity for some, but with access to our idols’ innermost thoughts and feelings on a stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, it seems less attractive. Want to know what life is like for John Malkovich? Follow his Twitter feed and find out his pet’s favorite Starbucks order.
Despite all of that, Being John Malkovich never really feels dated. The film is nearly 20 years old, but aside from the obvious advancements in technology, it is set in such a unique world that, rather than reflecting the time in which it was made, it seems to exist just outside of time. The film’s satire of Hollywood culture and the arts scene in general still ring true, and the film’s central theme of longing to break out of one identity and into another is a universal concept. Ultimately, underneath all of its cerebral meta- trappings, Being John Malkovich is a love story, and a story about the lengths to which these characters will go to make themselves feel lovable. If the film’s strange setting is a bit alienating, its emotional core, and the performances of its cast shine through and give the viewer something to cling to. I hadn’t watched this movie in many years, and while it still doesn’t rank among my very favorite Kaufman films, I could understand why it might for others. The building blocks of his future scripts are in place here, and many of the themes that he continues to explore in his films to this day are fleshed out quite well in Being John Malkovich. I’ll probably end up going back to this movie with more frequency than I have in the past.