64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

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DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind his most emotionally affecting, and Adaptation his cleverest, but he’s never written anything funnier than his debut, Being John Malkovich. From the moment Craig Schwartz steps onto the 7 1/2th floor, stooping so he doesn’t hit the ceiling, talks to executive liaison who believes his name is Juarez, interviews with the boss who insists he has a speech impediment, and watches the orientation video where an 19th century industrialist (who talks like a pirate) explains he built this floor for his short-statured wife so there would be one place on earth where her and her “accursed kind” could live in peace, Being John Malkovich demonstrates its devotion to deadpan absurdist yuks. Add in running  jokes at the expense of puppeteers, a chimp undergoing psychoanalysis, the low comedy of John Malkovich being struck on the head by a beer can thrown from a passing vehicle, and about a dozen other crazed gags, and you have a movie that’s like what might happen if someone found a cache of old unused Monty Python sketches and miraculously crafted them into all into a coherent narrative.

Not to take away from director Spike Jonze’s work on Malkovich—he orchestrates the ensemble cast beautifully and has the good sense not to inject too much of himself into the story—but any halfway competent director could take a Kaufman script and make, at the minimum, a near masterpiece. Kaufman is the only writer working today whose scripts are unique enough to completely dictate the feel of the movie; it doesn’t matter if Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry or Kaufman himself directs, the result is still as immediately recognizable as Kaufman as is the style of a Kubrick or a Hitchcock. All the movies contain the same slanted, dream-logic humor; the neurotic intellectual protagonists; the appealingly weird “why didn’t I ever think of that?” premises; the unpredictable constructions leading to ingenious conclusions; and the glancing philosophical implications that allow the movies to be read and enjoyed on multiple levels. There’s also the metafictional conceit that inhabits 75% of Kaufman’s scripts (excepting only Eternal Sunshine), the constant recursive subtext that this story is actually about the process of creating this story. These singularities act like anti-theft devices, making it impossible for directors to hijack Kaufman’s vision; if they try to turn off the story’s perfectly planned path, the vehicle would stop working and shut down.

Being John Malkovich touches lightly on philosophical issues—as Schwartz says, the ability to enter someone else’s head and see life through their eyes “raises a metaphysical can of worms”—but it doesn’t explore them seriously. Take, for example, the result when Malkovich dares to risk trying out the portal into his own mind. The answer to the intriguing question of what happens when someone enters into their own consciousness as an observer ends up as just another surreal joke (how does Malkovich end up at a restaurant?) Kaufman was probably wise not to delve to deeply into the unanswerable questions of the mind/body paradox. But he does explore another issue dearer to his heart: the role of the writer in creating a character. Schwartz’s marionettes (which he uses as an escape, a chance to live a more interesting life, and to creepily fulfill romantic fantasies when he has a puppet Schwartz seduce a puppet Maxine) are a metaphor for the portal into Malkovich, and vice versa. And both are a metaphor for the way a writer controls that simulacrum of a person, the onscreen character, by pulling the strings on the script to make them dance and speak. Kaufman is self-deprecating about the role of the puppeteer/author: after Schwartz is beaten up (again) for his inappropriately erotic sidewalk show and Lotte asks him why he puts himself through this, his answer is a fatalistic, “I’m a puppeteer.” The substitution of the slightly ridiculous “puppeteer” for the pompous “artist” suggests an author uncomfortable with his own role, but willing to laugh about it. It’s one of the film’s subtle meta-jokes that Kaufman is the only one who actually gets to enjoy the experience of “being John Malkovich” that Maxine promises to clients who answer her newspaper ad.

Kaufman’s Malkovich, of course, isn’t the real Malkovich: I’ll bet the real Malkovich doesn’t call up Charlie Sheen to talk him down after he’s suffered a psychotic identity crisis. The real Malkovich was married at the time of filming, but he’s a bachelor in this story. John Malkovich was brilliant selection to play the man with the secret portal. The tunnel behind the file cabinet could have led into anyone; it didn’t have to be a real person. Choosing an actor for the vessel gives the story another layer, affording anyone anxious to seize upon some sort of social relevance as an excuse for liking the movie the opportunity to discuss how it addresses  issues of contemporary celebrity worship (even though this delightfully superficial movie doesn’t address that concern any more thoroughly than any of the other conundrums it raises). But Malkovich is a weird, random choice. As an actor, he’s ever so slightly effeminate, but there’s a gonzo gleam in his eye that suggests he might go off the hook at any moment. A great but enigmatic performer, Malkovich had a distant, vaguely cultured public persona; he’s never in the tabloids, but he’s the sort of actor you might expect to show up on Charlie Rose’s late night PBS show discussing his latest project. He’s recognizable, but not so famous that anyone he meets in the movie can remember the name of something he was in. It’s a publicist’s dream that Malkovich overcame his initial reluctance and agreed to appear in the film and permanently lend it his name. The script has tremendous fun with his sub-major celebrity, making a joke not only out of the fact that people on the street can’t remember his roles but also of how ordinary and boring his private life is (people pay good money to experience what it’s like to order towels over the phone as John Malkovich!)

Malkovich is game to laugh at himself, which makes him all the more appealing, but he also does a fantastic job in a multifaceted performance that requires him to play not only a comic version of himself but also a man in the throes of being possessed by someone inside his head, Richard III, and John Cusack. The actor proves himself worthy of the faith Kaufman put in him, knocking the ball out of the park.

Other performances are equally stellar. Cusack is suitably pathetic as the romantic but spineless artist with a bad case of unrequited love. The two female leads do an interesting switcheroo; Cameron Diaz is a gorgeous actress who acts pretty here, and Catherine Keener is a pretty actress who acts gorgeous here. Their performances suggest that sex appeal is a matter of attitude rather than looks. Diaz wears baggy clothes, little makeup and an unflattering perm. A frustrated would-be mom doting on a menagerie of pet store rejects, she starts the film as an agreeably frumpy mate for Cusack, but the discovery of the portal unhinges her and turns her into a schemer. Keener, who looks like she has too many teeth for her mouth whenever she flashes her sarcastic smile, is a man-eater who makes herself sexually irresistible by being impossible to impress. She always has a cruel putdown and a selfish plot ready, and only gets off on control—a fact that Cusack eventually picks up on in order to control her. Orson Bean and Mary Kay Place have hilarious turns as the horny executive geezer and the secretary with a hearing impairment, respectively. Besides the great acting by the featured cast, there are a host of cameos—from the unnoticeable (Jonze and fellow director David Fincher) to the eyeblink (Brad Pitt, Wynona Ryder, Andy Dick, and then-popular boy-band Hanson) to the amusing (Charlie Sheen, who tweaks his own image even more impishly than Malkovich does)—making Being John Malkovich a minor feast for fans of celebrity-spotting.

Being John Malkovich sets up its absurd scenario and then pushes its ideas to the outermost limits, but it retains control right up to the very end. It starts as a surreal comedy and moves seamlessly into a postmodern screwball sex farce: by the time the main characters start jockeying to get into Malkovich’s head and each others’ pants, we’ve already bought in to this crazy world and forgotten how insane it all is. We start to enjoy watching the characters angling for position just as if we were watching a “normal” movie, and then the script suddenly slaps us in the face with one of its oddball inventions, like when we’re thrust into the chimp’s head as he flashes back to being captured in the African savanna. Being John Malkovich is smart without being preachy, and daringly original without being alienating. If your significant other won’t let you pick the Saturday night flick anymore after you’ve burned him or her one too many times by trying to get them to sit through Stalker or Funky Forest, then Being John Malkovich is a flick you can pull out to mend fences. That alone makes it an essential tool to have on your DVD shelf. Plus, it’s kind of funny.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“While its title might sound bizarre anywhere other than on a docu portrait of the actor, the work itself goes beyond odd, taking its unconventional outlandishness to hilarious, dizzying heights. Yet what makes it so fresh is the decision to treat even the story’s most surreal inventions in real, rather than fantastical terms…”–David Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)

“The filmmakers are stoned on weirdness for its own sake…”–Stephen Farber, Movieline (contemporaneous)

“The movie handles [the Malkovich portal] not as a gimmick but as the opportunity for material that is somehow funny and serious, sad and satirical, weird and touching, all at once… stakes out a completely new place and colonizes it with limitless imagination.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Being John Malkovich (1999)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Salon: Being Charlie Kaufman – Michael Sragow’s essay/interview with the screenwriter after Being John Malkovich‘s release

Being John Malkovich @ Being Charlie Kaufman – the Being John Malkovich page on the Kaufman fansite

Spike Jonze and the Art of the RambleMovieline piece about a New York Times profile on Jonze culls a couple of nice tidbits about Being John Malkovich

Drunk Dude throws can at Malkovich on Set – a YouTube clip of a purported snippet of the DVD commentary for the beer can scene; an interesting hoax (perpetrator unknown), since there’s no director’s commentary and the scene appears in Kaufman’s script exactly as it plays out onscreen.

What John Malkovich Sees When He Reads This Review – thanks to Ka-Ping Yee for creating the Malkovich Mediator

DVD INFO: The Universal Special Edition DVD (buy) features some of the oddest extras your likely to find, and we’re not just talking about the motormouthed woman hired to play an anonymous motorist on the New Jersey Turnpike who’s paranoid about a fellow driver because she prefers canned green beans to fresh ones.  There’s also an abruptly interrupted interview with Jonze, a featurette on the art of marionettes featuring interviews with student puppeteers on what they thought of the film, and a menu item with nothing there (it warns you there’s nothing there, but it’s still an irresistible visit).  You can also watch the “7 1/2 Floor Orientation” film complete and uninterrupted, as well as the film’s mock TV segment spotlighting Malkovich’s career.  On the more conventional end of the spectrum there’s a set of production stills and the theatrical trailer, but there are also three impossibly bizarre TV spots that just had to be created specifically for the DVD (one doesn’t even mention the film).  Each menu item is accompanied by a different piece from the soundtrack: you can hear the evocative end-credits track by the ever-weird Bjork by going to the language menu.  These oddities almost—but not quite—compensate for the lack of a commentary track (even a facetious one). Hopefully, they’re saving that tidbit for a Blu-ray edition.

UPDATE 5/18/2012: In May 2012 Being John Malkovich was added to the Criterion Collection (buy). The Criterion release includes a newly remastered print (obviously). Several of the special features were ported over from the Universal release, but new material includes selected scene commentaries by , a behind-the-scenes mini-doc, and new interviews with director Spike Jonze and the man everyone wants to be, John Malkovich. A Blu-ray version (buy) with all the same features was released simultaneously.

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Folkwin.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)”

  1. This is without a doubt a weird masterpiece and as usual, beautifully deconstructed by 366. I can’t add more to the critique, but I can say the sight of the beercan bouncing off Malkovich’s head with the “Think fast” comments made by fratboys offscreen is truly one of the funniest scenes for me. Unique, marvelous, magical. If you haven’t seen this you don’t know what you’re missing. Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich…

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