Continuing the recent trend of articles about Spike Jonze on One Room With A View, here’s a Love Letter dedicated to Being John Malkovich and why it’s a work of genius that should be adored by everyone. Because it is one, and should be. The film stars John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz and, wouldn’t you know it, John Malkovich, all of whom give career highlight reel performances. Originally written ten years prior to its release in 1999, Being John Malkovich follows brilliant yet struggling puppeteer Craig Schwartz (Cusack) as he finally caves to the wishes of his exotic animal-loving wife Lotte (Diaz, looking startlingly “normal” with huge frizzy hair) and sets aside his attempts to make his passion a career and takes a real job in an office, filing papers.
Of course, this being Charlie Kaufman, the situation isn’t as mundane as that setup would suggest. Craig takes a job at LesterCorp, which occupies floor 7 1/2 of the Merton-Flemmer building, wherein everyone walks around bent double the whole time as it is literally sandwiched between floors seven and eight. The eccentric owner of the company, the apparently 105-year-old Dr Lester (a hilarious turn from Orson Bean) believes he cannot be understood by anyone due to a crippling speech impediment, though it’s actually because his secretary, Floris, is quite deaf and he just hasn’t realised. LesterCorp is also where Craig meets the beautiful but cruel Maxine (Keener), with whom he instantly falls in love after guessing her name in a hilariously bizarre moment that Cusack plays perfectly. It’s also where he discovers the tiny door that transports you inside the body of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes, before spitting you out on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Malkovich himself is spectacular, portraying an exaggerated, pompous version of himself (in the film his middle name is Horatio, in the real world it’s Gavin), and he’s really given the chance to show off the whole gamut of his artistic skills. He flits from serious thespian readings of Richard III and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to almost timid romance scenes with Keener, to adorably polite confusion at the repeated mentions of ‘that film where you played that jewel thief’ that doesn’t exist (and from one fan, ‘that film where you played that retard’), and of course to his trademark unbridled fury when he learns of the portal into his own head. He also gets to pull out his formidable comedy chops, particularly in the scenes where Craig begins to take control of him more actively – the garbled sentences and physical spasms he produces as the two men fight within the same body are amazing. Even more so, the moment Malkovich goes inside his own head is one of the most hilarious, inspired and downright bizarre scenes you’re ever likely to see on screen. If you ever wanted to see John Malkovich languishing on a grand piano in a silky red evening gown, complete with heaving chest, then consider those freaky prayers answered.
As the narrative wears on, the emerging (bizarre) love triangle between Maxine, Malkovich, and Lotte-but-only-when-inside-Malkovich begins to shed different lights on the characters. As Malkovich increasingly becomes a mere vessel for this ongoing tryst between lovers and ex-lovers, nuanced degrees of sympathy and disgust towards those involved rise and fall, and combine too; nobody in the film is ever wholly in the right or wrong, they’re all painted in shades of grey, like real people are. For all the surrealist storycraft and wild, outlandish ideas that he includes in his scripts, you can never fail to recognise the characters Kaufman creates as being unfalteringly real, recognisable human beings; this film clearly exhibits that, as does his follow up with Jonze, Adaptation, and his own directorial debut, the colossally ambitious and earth-shatteringly heartbreaking Synecdoche, New York. As the exploration of the relationships between Craig, Lotte, Maxine and Malkovich is the emotional core of Being John Malkovich, too much detail would spoil it, but it’s safe to say that the relationships in the film, whilst unconventional and metaphysical in their nature, are deeply touching and tenderly explored. Sums up a lot of Jonze and Kaufman’s output really.
What makes this movie truly special, however, is that in the wrong hands such a downright surreal idea could have been a total mess; but Kaufman and Jonze, in their inimitable way, take the original idea and turn it into so much more. The film explores issues of identity, sexuality, gender performance, what it means to be human, and other such grand philosophical concepts. It’s so, so much more than what could have just been a zany movie about controlling John Malkovich (or Tom Cruise, as one unnamed producer supposedly suggested) and making him do some silly things if entrusted to the wrong people. It leaves you thinking about your own sense of self, your place in the world, and your own relationships to others for a long while afterwards. And that, from a film that contains a cameo from Charlie Sheen in a ’60s-footballer style combover loudly proclaiming “MALKATRAZ!”, is pretty special.