"Being John Malkovich"

Director Spike Jonze puts his brilliantly offbeat twist on the "15 minutes of fame" theory.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

How can you resist a movie that offers an actor as inherently enjoyable as
John Malkovich the chance to play himself -- as a preening, perennially
horny fop -- and then to play himself possessed by numerous other people,
some of them vainer and more lustful than he? "Being John Malkovich" is the
first produced screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, and it bears the mark of
demented genius. This is a movie that adamantly refuses to observe the
conventions of cinematic storytelling or succumb to real-world logic. It's a
gleeful, nitrous-oxide high, midway between a Monty Python sketch and a
Buquel film, with dreamlike structure and pseudoscientific charts
to match. By the end, "Being John Malkovich" becomes so unhinged that
its story loses all shape and direction -- but the tremendous craft and warped
sensibility at work are so pleasurable that this really doesn't matter as
much as it should.

Director Spike Jonze, best known for his music videos (and his fine acting
job as the comic-relief redneck Vig in "Three Kings")
has the good sense to contain this outrageousness with a low-key, naturalistic style. Except for the memorable scene when the character John Malkovich himself goes inside
the head of the famous actor John Malkovich and encounters some kind of
endless Malkovichian feedback loop, Jonze's debut feature sticks to a grimy,
present-tense mode you might call kitchen-sink surrealism. Certainly the
stringy-haired, unshaven and chronically unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz
(John Cusack) doesn't seem a likely candidate to uncover a portal into, um,
wherever it is you go when you enter someone else's mind. Craig lives in a
dreary New York basement apartment with his mousy wife, Lotte (yes, it's
Cameron Diaz, wearing her hair in an unruly mop), and any number of her
animals, including an abrasive parrot named Orrin Hatch and a chimp
named Elijah.

One of the best things about "Being John Malkovich," to my mind, is that
Jonze and Kaufman don't waste time making fun of these ordinary, unhappy
people, who would certainly make easy targets. Craig is lazy and something
of a loser (his erotic street puppetry sometimes gets him beaten up by irate
parents), but his belief that he is an undiscovered genius is not treated as
ridiculous -- in fact, what we see of his work with puppets is quite
affecting. Lotte supports them both and obviously loves Craig, and suggests
only in the gentlest, most considerate tones that he get a straight job
until the marionette thing really takes off. But it's clear that the passion
has slowly drained out of their marriage; by the time Craig answers a
peculiar classified ad seeking a man with fast hands, Elijah seems to be the
only member of the Schwartz household who's really enjoying life.

Things are not quite normal at LesterCorp, the shadowy "filing company" that
becomes Craig's new employer. For starters, its offices are on the
"seven-and-a-halfth floor" of a nondescript Manhattan commercial building -- a 5-foot-high crawlspace you can only reach by stopping the elevator between the seventh and eighth floors and prying the doors open with a crowbar. Why does this
place exist? Craig watches a hilarious and deadly accurate '70s training
film, featuring the washed-out colors and sweater-vest wardrobes of the era,
which explains that the seven-and-a-halfth floor was created by an Irish sea captain so that leprechaun-sized office workers could have a space of their own.

If all this isn't enough evidence that we've entered some kind of low-rent
fairyland, there's more. The deranged receptionist, Floris (Mary Kay Place),
has Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), the kindly boss, convinced that he suffers from
a terrible speech impediment. "I've been very lonely in my isolated tower of
indecipherable speech," Dr. Lester sighs to Craig. (All he wants to talk
about, it turns out, is his elaborate sexual fantasies about Floris.) Rising
above all this nonsense in supreme, feline disdain is the laconic Maxine
(Catherine Keener). It probably took guts to cast box-office heartthrob Diaz
as the dorky wife and indie character-actor Keener as the sex kitten, but
when you see the latter slinking through the low-ceilinged halls of
LesterCorp, with her brows raised and lips pursed, you can't imagine their
roles reversed.

When Craig finally gets Maxine to go for a drink with him, he nervously
starts to tell her that there's something he really likes about her. "Is it
my tits?" she demands. Oh no, he insists, of course not. There's just
something about her -- her attitude, her demeanor. Maxine isn't impressed.
"Are you a fag?" she asks, rolling her eyes in exasperation. Totally
defeated, Craig can only agree that her tits are great and that he wants to
have sex with her. "Good," she says curtly, having gotten the affirmation
she requires. "Not a chance." But when Craig discovers that one of
LesterCorp's filing cabinets conceals a secret doorway that allows you to
enter the mind of John Malkovich for 15 minutes -- before dumping you into a
ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike -- he sees it first and foremost as his
chance to score with Maxine.

Mind you, neither Craig nor Maxine is entirely clear about who John
Malkovich is, except that he's a famous actor. (If you're not sure either,
his best-known roles are probably in "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Sheltering
Sky" and "In the Line of Fire.") That's enough, apparently, for them to
launch a clandestine business charging strangers $200 to take a shift inside
Malkovich as he brushes his teeth, reads Chekhov or orders towels from a
catalog. But when Lotte enters the Malkovich portal -- and Maxine stalks
and seduces him while Lotte is inside -- things really get complicated. As
Craig says, entering another person's mind "raises all sorts of
philosophical questions." In "Being John Malkovich," those questions include
whether Lotte is actually a transsexual, whose baby a child fathered by
Lotte-as-Malkovich actually is and whether Sean Penn will follow Malkovich's
shining example and abandon his acting career for puppetry.

Kaufman's screenplay takes some satirical whacks at celebrity worship and
New Age self-absorption -- "Don't stand in the way of my self-actualization
as a man," Lotte tells Craig. But its primary agenda is absurdism of the
British-TV variety, in which the floodgates of the subconscious are thrown
open and half-associated ideas come rushing out. Jonze and his terrific cast
keep the movie going on its own giddy, nonsensical self-confidence for quite
a while, but when the being-John-Malkovich gag begins to get old, "Being
John Malkovich" loses steam rapidly.

By the time Craig locks Lotte in Elijah's cage and uses his puppetry skills
to take full possession of Malkovich -- so he can finally make it with
Maxine -- we've lost all our initial sympathy for him. We're never sure what
Maxine is after (other than being everybody's object of desire), how Dr.
Lester's diabolical scheme works or who finally ends up inside "the
Malkovich vessel." In fact, the conclusion of "Being John Malkovich," which
involves a frightening vision of Charlie Sheen, bald and clad in a Hawaiian
shirt, reminds me a little of the incoherent final sequence of Stanley
Kubrick's "2001." Both movies are daring and more than a little daft -- they take us on a hellacious ride and then fling us out beyond the Milky Way, skittering away into empty space like a runaway satellite.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------