Being John Malkovich
by Jon Bastian
In Spike Jonze’s funhouse ride through the mind of John Malkovich, the humans are all fucked up and only the puppets show real emotions.
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There’s something profoundly disturbing about Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, although I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. The film is simultaneously grimly hilarious and existentially dark, and it’s truly quite unlike anything that’s come before it. If I had to give a Hollywood pitch for the film, it would Death Becomes Her meets The Hudsucker Proxy, but viciously twisted. Jonze puts us in a Manhattan populated by an assortment of truly fucked-up people. Malkovich is perhaps the only sane person in the piece, although his sanity is increasingly challenged by the events happening around — and in — him.
A description of the plot can’t do it justice without giving too much away. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out of work puppeteer who might have more success were he not doing street-corner performances of sexually suggestive works based on Medieval ballads to the outrage of the parents of passing children. He finally bites the bullet and looks for a job at the urging of his animal-loving wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, who manages to look frighteningly unattractive here, which I think and hope was intentional). The job Craig finds begins the real adventure as an ad leads him to the five foot high Floor 7-1/2 in an office building populated by some of the strangest people you’ll ever meet. At The Lester Company, whose raison d’etre is filing, executive liaison Floris (Mary Kay Place) has convinced everyone that her hearing difficulty is actually their speech impediment, and Doctor Lester (Orson Bean), the one-hundred-and-five year old owner of the company, is given to inappropriately graphic descriptions of the relationships he’d have with women if he were eighty years younger. Meanwhile, Maxine (Catherine Keener), a co-worker of indeterminate function who manipulates people right and left, tosses ambiguous attitude toward Craig, impelling him to increasingly desperate acts of penis-induced stupidity.
Yes, this is a world where everyone is a little off. Craig’s job interview with Lester is an amazing barrage of non-sequitors and misperceptions, and no one quite says what they mean or means what they say. Lotte populates her world with a menagerie of animals, deluding herself into thinking she’s ready to have children. Meanwhile, Craig lives his fantasy life through his puppets, a grown-up playing with dolls.
At first, puppeteer Craig is a bit of a cipher, but he’s eventually cracked out of his shell by the weirdness around him. By the time he discovers a hidden doorway at his office that leads directly into the mind of John Malkovich, he’s starting to play puppet master with people around him, a trajectory on which he continues with disastrous results.
Ah, yes. That John Malkovich thing. You see, the doorway that Craig finds leads into Malkovich’s mind, literally. Whoever goes through it winds up experiencing life through Malkovich’s eyes for about fifteen minutes, after which they’re unceremoniously dumped out by the side of the Jersey Turnpike. It’s a strange device, but it works because Jonze just goes for it. He may give a nod to the “why” of the thing toward the end of the film, but he wisely never deals with “how.” You either buy it or you don’t, but in the world he sets up in the first act, this little portal is not out of place.
John Malkovich plays himself here (or at least, the version of himself we expect) in what is the strangest performance of the year. Yet, he is the ideal person to have chosen for this concept. I can’t even imagine the film working with anyone else. There’s just something about Malkovich’s combination of being a serious actor known for quirky roles that pays off the film’s major conceit on face value alone. That Malkovich does bravura work is just icing on the cake, and he’s a damn good sport about the whole thing to boot. The film takes quite a few swipes at his persona, as when a New York cabby recognizes his face, but has no idea who he is; or when everyone thinks that he was “in that jewel heist film,” his insistence that he wasn’t falling on deaf ears. Likewise, one of the most fascinating moments when we’re in his head is when he’s doing nothing more than talking with a catalog order operator about bath towels while snacking on leftover Chinese food from his fridge. That’s all that’s happening, and yet the concept makes the banality compelling. The moment when Malkovich makes the journey himself into Malkovich gives us the biggest sustained laugh of the film, as well as the most technically amazing sequence I’ve seen in a long time, Phantom Menace included.
It’s a credit to Malkovich, Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that such a self-referential device never pulls us out of the film. If anything, this is what sucks us in. Surprisingly, this is the debut feature effort for both Jonze and Kaufman. Now, in the past, I’ve done my share of bitching about MTV directors who turn to theatrical film — see my review of Stigmata for a good trashing. But, if I didn’t know that Jonze was a video director, I never would have guessed. His style is never overly tricky, and he knows the value of holding a shot when necessary. He also pulls off a unique look, in which everything seems underlit and yet amply illuminated. It’s hard to describe; just see it and you’ll know what I mean. Adding to my amazement at his work here, Jonze also does a pretty good acting job in the just released Three Kings as the dumb hick partner of George Clooney and Marky Mark. (Plug: If you haven’t seen that film yet, see it. In my opinion, except for the last two minutes, it’s the best picture of the year, if not the decade, period.)
Rounding out the fine work here is the design and puppeteering of Phil Huber. We have a trio of marionette stand-ins for Cusack, Diaz and Keener, and they’re dead ringers. On top of that, when they perform, they are real. Although their little wooden faces are totally inanimate, the way their bodies are manipulated by Huber makes us see feelings pass across their eyes. (As an amateur puppet maker and operator myself, I can tell you this ain’t easy.) The puppets are more human than the actors, but that’s part of the point.
Ultimately, though, Being John Malkovich only thinks it’s about big issues that it never completely tackles. Concepts of existence, manipulation, consciousness and gender identity are brought up and toyed with, but never completely explored or resolved. In the end, we’re left with a “through the looking glass” adventure into very strange territory, which is fine if that’s all you expect going in. Being John Malkovich is a funhouse ride with a surprisingly bitter and claustrophobic splash at the end. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for something unusual and hilarious that has a new surprise hidden in every minute, it’s worth running out to see. Afterwards, I dare you not to think of the possibility, at least once, that someone’s visited through a portal that leads into your head. Creepy — just like Malkovich’s best roles, the world of this film and, most likely, the experience of being Spike Jonze.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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