Title: Being John Malkovich
Rating: 5 Stars
Yes, I know that this is an old movie, but I was bored last night and re-watched it, and was once again blown away by its cleverness, creativeness, and humor.
If you put a gun to my head and ask me to name the person that, if I heard was attached to a movie, would pretty much guarantee that the movie would be unique and that I would end up loving it, I would have to say Charlie Kaufman. Just consider that he wrote the following: Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. These are all movies that I thoroughly enjoyed and would watch repeatedly.
I love the premise. On the 7 1/2 floor of a building, there is a little doorway that, if you go through, it casts you into John Malkovich’s brain for fifteen minutes, after which you are ejected somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike. First of all, how does someone come up with that as a concept? And then, how do you make a full movie of it? Well, Kaufman does and it’s pretty wonderful.
All of the actors are typed against cast and all do great work. There’s John Cusack (Craig), playing not only a hopeless loser, but really a bad guy that tries to throw off his wife at the first glance of an attractive woman and who just callously takes over Malkovich’s body. There’s Cameron Diaz (Lotte), nearly unrecognizable, as a wimpy pet store owner (and Craig’s wife) that eventually falls madly in love with another woman, and there’s Catherine Keener (Maxine), who plays an woman who uses her sex appeal at every opportunity to get what she wants.
And then, of course, there’s John Malkovich, who is generally considered to be a serious actor who has to play himself being possessed by other people occupying his mind.
I see a couple of themes running through this:
- Everyone wants to be someone else. There’s immediately a line out the door when Maxine and Craig start charging people to spend time in Malkovich’s head. Everyone comes out thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated, with the obvious exception of Malkovich himself. When Malkovich actually enters his own mind, it causes an Malkovich overload and he enters a world where all people: men, women, and child, become John Malkovich and the only word spoken is Malkovich.
- This was made in 1999, but considering the discussion taking place now about the binary nature of gender, this seems prescient. Maxine can only love Malkovich when he’s possessed by another. Lotte is hopelessly in love with Maxine, but can only express it while in Malkovich’s body. Craig also loves Maxine, which is not reciprocated but is tolerated when he’s in Malkovich’s body. Maxine becomes pregnant through Malkovich, but claims that the baby is Lotte. All very non-binary, obviously.
- There is also discussion of the role of the actor. Craig is a puppeteer (literally, in fact there is one scene where he re-enacts Abelard and Heloise to hilarious result). When he takes over Malkovich, he basically becomes a puppeteer on a human scale. Ultimately, as Malkovich, he swears off acting and becomes a puppeteer again. How much free agency does an actor truly have in his/her work? Is he/she just a puppet to the director puppeteer?
One anecdote that I found interesting is that everyone that read Kaufman’s screenplay agreed that it was brilliant, but no one thought it would get made. It was shown to Malkovich, who loved it, but thought that the character Malkovich should be played by a different actor, which would obviously have introduced even another layer of mind fuck to the movie. Kaufman never considered another option and it took years of convincing before Malkovich agreed to do it.
So here’s a movie that I hadn’t watched in well over ten years that I just watched again on a whim and it once again blew me away with its originality and humor. I now have Kaufman’s other films in my queue. I have every expectation that they will wear just as well as this one.