1001 Films: Being John Malkovich (1999)

“Sounds great! Who the fuck is John Malkovich?”

There’s so much to say about Malkovich that it’s insane that somehow this movie is still considered to be underappreciated by the general public. Maybe it’s a case of, “Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate,” because Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, director and writer of the film respectively, definitely serve up the strange and inaccessible with little reservations about it.

So, for those of you not attune to that game that this film plays. An out of work puppeteer takes a job filing in an office on the 7 1/2th floor of a skyscraper only to discover a tiny door in his office which is actually a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich, after which time said individual is “spit out” into a ditch in the New Jersey Turnpike. Take a moment to consider the meaning that something like this actually existing may entail.

Let’s remember that in 1999 we were yet to have Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace. The notion of celebrity was even further separated from us than they are today. Somehow thanks to all these portals that we can interact with them and spy on them makes them come off as more human than you could imagine. While the tabloid and gossip culture hasn’t changed at all over the years these inventions do make a difference. So for a film to create an actual portal that allows for you to perceive the life of John Malkovich as it is happening then you start to question where do I end and where does Malkovich begin were to step into this portal.

As put by Craig (John Cusack), “Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?” Does this therefore mean that social media as it exists, and as it will exist in the next decade, is a metaphysical extension of reality?

When you think about it this movie could’ve been about any celebrity at the time, but the fact that it revolves around John Malkovich – a somewhat less than famous character actor – makes it kind of odd. Taking us back into the notion of how coveted fame is, even the tiniest amount. The idea of feeling special, even though it’ll never be you but rather just accepting that adoration as another man, in this case Malkovich.

The puppetry scenes in this film are so gorgeous. With a form of art and expression that’s usually reserved for town to town moving carnivals it’s oddly interesting to see it so prominently displayed here. It almost makes you want to give it more notoriety, if there were more lusting stories like the one Craig (John Cusack) tells on the street which gets him punched in the face.

What truly sells this movie for me is the weird, which is sort of the worst thing to latch onto. It’s downright weird to consider the idea of a man/woman jumping into the body of another man. It’s even weirder to have the idea of a woman obsessing about another woman, but only when she’s inside Malkovich. It takes it a step further into the insane when we finally get an explanation as to why this portal even exists.

Where this film surprises me, with a premise as odd as this film has, is the how comedic it takes its story. The mean spirited way in which it deals with its celebrity role and the oddness of all the other characters in the film: the boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who says carrot juice is his secret to being 105 and keeps saying things out loud he never means to, Floris (Mary Kay Place), the receptionist who keeps mishearing every and anything, Maxine (Catherine Keener), the hot girl in the office who manipulates Craig and Lotte (Cameron Diaz) into doing what she wants just so she can get more Malkovich love or more money (via the business), and so on so forth.

The film’s odd quirk is somehow unlike that of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson and at the same time very much the closest comparison to them. It almost never admits it’s being odd which is the first step to being successfully your own, and I love it for that.

The film is perfect and helps that two very visually and comedically stand out scenes of Malkovich entering his own mind and the subconscious chase sequence towards the end keeps me more than willing to come back again and again with this movie.

Rating: 10/10