This movie came on cable the other day and I knew had to watch it in its entirety since it had been a long time since I saw it. Being John Malkovich is one of the most cunning, highly original and unpredictable movies I have seen. The mastermind behind it is the lauded screenwriter Charlie Kaufman whose other notable works are Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which like Malkovich explore ‘consciousness’ and ‘existentialism’ unlike what few other movies have ever done. Three of Kaufman’s scripts appear in the Writers Guild of America list of the 101 greatest movie screenplays ever written. He wrote the Malkovich script in 1994, sending it to many companies and studios, all of which turned it down. The script eventually reached Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it on to his then-son-in-law Jonze, who agreed to direct the film
I watched an interview recently with actor John Malkovich discussing his reaction to reading the script. Malkovich originally wanted to direct the movie, but change the protagonist from himself to someone else, but Kauffman refused to change it. So the script laid dormant for at least 5 years until Spike Jonze picked it up and Malkovich was eventually convinced to play himself. I am reluctant to give away much of the plot since for those who haven’t seen it, Being John Malkovich is definitely one movie the viewer should try to go into naively – bright eyed and bushy-tailed! So look away now if you intend on seeing it for the first time.
Puppeteer Craig Schwartz and animal lover and pet store clerk Lotte Schwartz are just going through the motions of their marriage. Despite not being able to earn a living solely through puppeteering, Craig loves his profession as it allows him to inhabit the skin of others. He begins to take the ability to inhabit the skin of others to the next level when he is forced to take a job as a file clerk for the off-kilter LesterCorp, located on the five-foot tall 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. Behind one of the filing cabinets in his work area, Craig finds a hidden door which he learns is a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, the visit through the portal which lasts fifteen minutes after which the person is spit into a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig is fascinated by the meaning of life associated with this finding. Lotte’s trips through the portal make her evaluate her own self. And the confident Maxine Lund, one of Craig’s co-workers who he tells about the portal if only because he is attracted to her, thinks that it is a money making opportunity in selling trips into Malkovich’s mind after office hours for $200 a visit. Craig, Lotte and Maxine begin to understand that anyone entering the portal has the ability to control Malkovich’s mind, which also alters his entire being. This experience makes Maxine fall in love with a composite. This ability to control Malkovich’s mind begs the question of the ultimate psychedelic trip for Malkovich himself, who begins to feel that something is not right in the world as he knows it.
Being John Malkovich is so captivating because everything and everyone is a little off in this movie. The humor is witty and dark. Cameron Diaz is ugly. John Cusack is dishevelled. Catherine Keener is a sex goddess. The office complex on the floor between floors (where the term ‘low overhead’ is literal) brings every sight gag imaginable. The film has a moving desperation about it as each character longs to be someone else. Who could’ve ever thought of a normal person going into the brain of an famous (Oscar nominated) actor- and coming out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike?! The story line is so obtuse, it is near hypnotic. The viewer is compelled to watch again a little bit closer. The whole movie is off its axis and so much the better for it.