Being John Malkovich (review)

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Head Games

(Best of 1999)

Being John Malkovich is the kind of movie a friend of mine calls a “think bomb.” Hours and then days after leaving the theater, you’re struck out of nowhere by some new subtlety of the characters that makes you reconsider them, some nuance of the plot that suddenly calls your initial interpretation of the film into question, or some detail in the imagery or the music that makes you say Wow! It’s like having a bunch of grenades with faulty detonators lolling around in your subconscious exploding without warning.

Think bomb.
That’s not to say that there’s no primary blast from a think-bomb movie. In fact, it may be the shockwave from its deployment that causes the delayed reaction in the first place. I was sort of flattened in my seat by the time Being John Malkovich‘s credits rolled, awestruck, unsure whether what I had just witnessed, with my jaw down to the floor half the time, was the product of genius or madness. Or both.

Whatever it is, it offers an unforgettable moviegoing experience.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack: The Thin Red Line, This Is My Father), an out-of-work puppeteer, unwittingly discovers a “portal” into the brain of actor John Malkovich (John, well, Malkovich: The Man in the Iron Mask, Con Air). That bald description of the film’s strikingly original concept doesn’t even begin to cover how deliciously odd Being John Malkovich is. It looks weird. It thinks weird. It’s just plain weird. In a good way.


What makes us us? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we fall in love — or lust — with the people we do? Craig and his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz: There’s Something About Mary, Very Bad Things), seem made for each other, seem happy and cozy in their cramped basement apartment, which they share with a veritable zoo: a wounded iguana, a chatty parrot, a chimp who visits a shrink. So why does Craig fall madly in love with the chilly, manipulative Maxine (Catherine Keener: 8MM, Out of Sight) the moment he meets her? Is it because he recognizes that she’s a puppeteer, too, in her own way, using the lust she inspires in the men around her to twist them into doing her bidding?

Maxine convinces Craig they should sell tickets to the John Malkovich portal — 200 bucks a pop. The lines stretch out the door, even though they, of necessity, can only open for business in the middle of the night (the portal is rather inconveniently located behind a filing cabinet in the office in which Max and Craig work). Why is it that even though we can’t figure out what makes us us, we’d all rather be someone else?

“Consciousness is a terrible curse,” Craig, in a funk, confides to Elijah (the chimp) one afternoon. But how do we know who actually is conscious? Can we ever really tell when someone’s not moving entirely under his own metaphysical steam? Who pulls your strings?


Why are we obsessed with celebrities? Is it because we all mostly look like frumpy Lotte (who’da thunk Cameron Diaz could look unkempt?) and glum, perpetually unshaven Craig and live in some variation of the Schwartzes’ dingy basement apartment, while celebs lounge around their glorious Upper East Side penthouses waiting for long-legged sexpots to throw themselves at them, as Maxine does with Malkovich? Is it because we all experience the kind of existential rage Craig expresses through his puppets while celebs always seem so damn cool and carefree, or at least way more comfortable in their misery?

Making their feature film debuts, director Spike Jonze (who appeared as an actor in Three Kings, another auspicious debut) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ambitiously raise all these questions and explore them obliquely but, to their credit, never offer any concrete answers — these may well be unanswerable questions, seeing as how we as a species have been asking them since we first rubbed a couple of sticks together to make fire. And yet Jonze and Kaufman make us feel as if this is all brand new, landing us in Alice-in-Wonderland territory that’s simultaneously bewildering and uproarious: characters who grievously mishear the spoken word; the strange world of the 7th-and-a-half floor of the Merton-Flemmer Building — where Craig works, where the portal is located — where everyone looks as if they’ve eaten Alice’s pill that makes you big; and even the John Malkovich portal itself, a long, dark, muddy tunnel hidden behind a tiny door, looking like the White Rabbit’s hole.


Weirdly touching, oddly beautiful, curiously gloomy, and featuring the most bizarre chase scene ever filmed, Being John Malkovich is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ll be mulling over it for weeks.


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