Being John Malkovich
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich
For fans of the work of Charlie Kaufman, a predisposition to a realm of absurdity is often acquired after watching one of his screenplays unfold. Approach any of his works with the intention that you will be taken somewhere new, and that that place will be filled with wonder, terror, and more honesty than reality could ever contain.
In Being John Malkovich, Kaufman has crafted his magnum opus. Inside the expansive confines of his world lie countless punchlines, absurdities and insights, most of which deal with the nature of identity. This is a world filled only with people who go for what they want, because those who don’t don’t matter. It’s extremes like these that guide the often childish characters through the narrative and ultimately to a conclusion that offers no simple answers.
It begins with a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) realizing his dream is impossible in his own body. He decides to apply this childish pastime onto something in the corporate world. He gets hired as a file clerk (because of his fast fingers) on the 7 1/2 floor of a gigantic office building. While working there, he falls immediately in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), an attractive, manipulative, and greedy woman who leads him on, and then ultimately cuts him loose. This is until he discovers the portal.
After dropping a a file behind a cabinet, Craig removes it only to discover a small doorway which leads into the mind of John Malkovich. You experience everything he does, and then after 15 minutes you’re dumped somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike. Like I said, be ready for absurdity.
Beneath the hilarious exterior of Kaufman’s screenplay, though, lies many philosophical musings. As Maxine manipulates Craig and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) into feuding over her, the two are torn apart. Entering the mind of Malkovich has revealed to them that they are not happy, and go to more extremes to achieve it. The main focus of the film is on identity, more specifically on celebrity. If you could commandeer John Malkovich’s body and achieve your dreams with his celebrity, or, for a different character, live forever, wouldn’t you?
The fear of death also blotches this world. Living forever, both in the eyes of the public and literally, comes at the cost of giving up your identity. For Craig, he didn’t have his real identity until he got lucky and found someone else’s.
Director Spike Jonze is an admirable partner in bringing Kaufman’s screenplay to life. The two have a mutual understanding of the ridiculous and the profound, and they work together seamlessly to bring it to full visual bloom. The most impressive visual sequence in the film is a masterpiece of a chase scene through Malkovich’s subconscious. It is at this point that the mind-bending visuals and the equally mind-bending source material merge to great effect.
The performances are also up to par with everything else. Jon Cusack and Cameron Diaz, two performers notorious for doing material undeserving of their talents, both go for the gold as the two nut jobs at the center of this mess. Cusack in particular delivers an award-caliber performance, showcasing the corruption of a man’s soul as he loses sight of his identity. Catherine Keener also gives a terrific performance, manipulating the two and falling in love for them both, but only while they are inside John Malkovich’s head.
Malkovich is a trooper in this movie, letting anyone who watches this movie into the scary confines of his past. Whether or not any of it’s true is largely up to the viewer, but some of it seems like it was hard to make up. The scene where he travels into the portal into his own mind and finds a world filled with himself, only to come out on the other end in a rampage is hilarious self-deprecation. He’s a masterclass of an actor, and this movie serves as a fittingly bizarre tribute.
If this review sounds too serious, never you mind. Almost every kind of humor takes place in this film, and it’s not until after the first third that it actually starts getting über philosophical. If you’re willing to open your mind to a realm different than your own, you may learn a thing or two about yourself… and John Malkovich.