Sunday, May 5, 2013

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

From the off-kilter minds of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze comes what has to be one of the most unique and creative Hollywood films of the nineties.  Being John Malkovich is weird.  Very weird.  But it manages to be weird without ever completely disorienting the audience.  Sure, its world may not make that much sense, but I really like the dark air of sad mystery and fantasy.

Craig Schwartz (Cusack) is an unemployed puppeteer whose animal-loving dowdy wife Lotte (Diaz) encourages him to get a day job.  He finds one as a file clerk on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan building, and he quickly falls for strong, sexy, and completely out of his league co-worker Maxine (Keener).  One day, Craig discovers a tiny door behind a file cabinet.  Going through it, it takes him into the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself) for fifteen minutes before dumping him out onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike.  Craig tells Lotte and Maxine, and Maxine turns it into a business – be someone else for two hundred bucks a pop.  Lotte, however, falls for Maxine after meeting her during her trip into Malkovich.  In the meantime, Malkovich himself starts to realize something is wrong.

I like a great deal about this movie.  I am endlessly fascinated by the meta aspect of it.  I love – LOVE – that Kaufman managed to convince Malkovich to play Malkovich.  Apparently, Kaufman shopped his script around and Malkovich’s production company liked it and wanted to do it, but Malkovich himself thought he wasn’t quite right for the title character and suggested they use a different actor.  Kaufman and Jonze were insistent, however, and eventually wore Malkovich down.  This is probably my favorite part of this movie – that John Malkovich plays some wacky version of himself.  I love how banal his experiences are when Craig and the others slip into his brain.  The first time Craig goes, we are Malkovich eating toast.  Later on, he’s on the phone ordering bath mats.  BATH MATS.  And then we get the ultimate meta experience when Malkovich, played by Malkovich, goes into the mind of Malkovich, where everything is Malkovich.  This movie doesn’t work without Malkovich.  His portrayal of Craig inside himself is hysterical. 

There are a lot of little touches of black humor I enjoy greatly as well.  The secretary who can’t understand a word anyone is saying.  The ridiculous orientation video that was clearly made at a D-level production company.  The fact that Malkovich wears a cheesy baseball hat that isn’t fastened at the back.  The disgustingly lewd old man boss.  Charlie Sheen playing himself.  Sean Penn lauding Malkovich moving into puppetry.  Willie Garson’s improvised scene where he compliments Malkovich at a restaurant, saying the word “retard” way too many times.  The Malkovich Retrospective TV special at the end of the film.  There are definitely parts that make me laugh.

I enjoy too how utterly unglamorous most of the characters are.  Craig Schwartz is one of the most singularly unattractive roles I have ever seen John Cusack in, he who usually plays sweet, sentimental estrogen parade heartthrobs.  Craig is a sadsack with almost no redeeming qualities.  Instead of feeling sympathy for his unemployment, we quickly learn not to pity him too much.  This is a very much out of type John Cusack.  Then there is Cameron Diaz, nearly unrecognizable as Lotte.  For an actress who is so tabloid-conscious as Diaz, she sure surprises here.  Although not the most talented actress in the world, she admirably carries the emotional heart of the film in ridiculously frizzy hair and high-waisted Mom jeans.  This all falls in line with the rather unglamorous lifestyle of the character John Malkovich, going right back to his ordering bath mats.  It’s uncommon to see this in film (though, to be fair, not unheard of).  I always enjoy seeing a less glamorous, more realistic world in films, so I respond well to Craig’s disheveled hairstyle and Lotte’s ill-fitting clothes.  

But I don’t think this is a perfect film.  My biggest argument against it is with the central triangle of Craig, Lotte, and Maxine.  Their motivations are what drives the narrative forward, and I don’t really understand most of them, nor do I take pleasure in watching them play out.  Craig is a sad, pathetic character who makes bad decisions.  Lotte is kind but a bit irrational.  But it is Maxine who I understand least, and who I must understand in order to follow along.  I can understand her as the bitchy overconfident co-worker who rebuffs Craig, but I don’t really get why or how or even when she falls for Lotte, and then Craig-slash-Malkovich.  With all of Kaufman’s creativity in making this wholly original story, I feel that I am missing a key element here.  The central emotional arc doesn’t have nearly enough heft behind it.  All the wonderful fantastical story elements feel like superfluous nothings if there isn’t an emotional connection. Furthermore, Kaufman is clearly hinting at issues of identity but chooses not to fully explore them, instead focusing on the random asides.  Delve further, I say.  I don’t really care about the idea of the immortal vessel, but say more about personality.  Frankly, I find Being John Malkovich a bit soulless.

Overall, though, this doesn’t get too much in the way of me having a ball while watching Being John Malkovich.  I very much enjoy this movie.  It’s infinitely creative, and I like that a lot.  I’ve never seen another movie quite like it, and that’s saying something.  Plus, and this is a small thing, I am rather fascinated by the puppetry in it.  One doesn’t really see marionettes in film that often, yet they’re given a definite supporting role here. 

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10


  1. It's difficult not to admire the creativity of this film, but it's just as difficult for me to get over the fact that I dislike all of these people (except Malkovich).

    1. I can understand that. I do think it's interesting, at the very least, that the character of Craig at first appears to be there to get our sympathy because he's such a sad sack, but it soon becomes incredibly clear that he is hardly a sympathetic fella. It's an unexpected characterization.

  2. I worked with a woman who said she found this film unrealistic. I was not surprised, what with portals into people's heads that spit you out on the edge of a freeway, but she then explained she didn't have a problem with that. She just didn't believe Cusack and Diaz as a married couple. I thought this was a unique perspective, but I hear echos of that when you say you don't really get why Keener and Diaz would be together.

    For me personally, any romantic connections in this film are much less of a leap than all the rest that I was able to happily go along with.

    I like this movie a lot, too. I agree that Malkovich playing Malkovich (and to a lesser extent Sheen playing Sheen) are the best parts of the movie. Just the concept that the two would be the best of friends makes me smile. Even Malkovich's cameo as a diva-Malkovich filming Being John Malkovich in Kaufman's even more meta Adaptation is fun.

    1. It's not what I would call "unrealistic," more "too superficial." There's so much thought put into so much else in the film, I wish more had been put into the characterizations. When you peel back the layers of wacky crazy situations, I feel like there isn't much "there" there.

      But the wacky crazy situations are incredibly diverting, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much, huh?

      Haven't seen Adaptation yet, but I'm looking forward to it. Sheen is so funny in this movie. "Ma-sheen!"