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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich is a film of breathtaking originality from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, who just might be the best screenwriter working today. It isn't a film that's really like anything else you've ever seen, and the things that it shows you aren’t really like anything you’ve ever seen either, but it commits so fully to the world that it is presenting to you that suspending your disbelief is never an issue. It is an existential comedy, a drama about lonely people longing for connection, a meditation on the nature of sexuality, and a commentary on the malleable nature of identity. It is, in a word, brilliant.

The story begins with a puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack), who takes a job at Lester Corp., where the office is located on floor 7 ½. Because the office space is half a floor, the ceilings are so low that they make it necessary for the employees to walk crouched down and the elevator has to be pried open to let people on or off. “Why are the ceilings so low?” Craig asks Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). “Low overheard, my boy – we pass the savings on to you! But, seriously, that’ll all be covered in the orientation.” The orientation video explains – or, rather “explains” – that the building which houses Lester Corp. was founded by a man who was married to a little person and created the office to fit her. Oh, and Dr. Lester is convinced that he has an indecipherable speech impediment because his secretary can’t understand a word that he, or anyone else, says.

One day at work Craig discovers a door and, exploring, finds that it’s a portal which transports you into the psyche of John Malkovich, allowing you to see the world through his eyes for 15 minutes before you're dumped by the side of the road. He and his co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), with whom he’s infatuated, start a business selling people the opportunity to be John Malkovich and attract a variety of customers, including Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), whose experiences inside the actor cause her to question her entire life. The business wreaks all kinds of havoc, not just for Malkovich and Craig and Lotte, whose marriage falls apart over their mutual lust for Maxine, but also for Dr. Lester who has business of his own regarding the portal. Dr. Lester has found the key to immortality, jumping from portal to portal for all eternity, and has decided to open the opportunity up to others. However, for this to work, they have to get Craig out of there.

On a superficial level, this is a very bizarre and funny film, perhaps never more so than during scenes involving John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen, both of whom brilliantly lampoon their own public personas and demonstrate admirable senses of humour about themselves (Sheen: "Maybe she's using you to channel some dead lesbian lover. Sounds like my kind of gal"). However, there’s a lot to this film beneath the surface as well. Through Malkovich and Craig’s hostile takeover of his body (he uses Malkovich like a giant puppet), the film comments on the nature of identity. Identity as it is presented here is performance, something acted out for the benefit of other people in order to hide what is really beneath the skin. This sequence finds Craig finally possessing the two things he most desires - Maxine and a celebrated career as a puppeteer - but having them as someone else. He begins to lose himself in Malkovich and considers allowing Dr. Lester to kill Maxine rather than give up being Malkovich. In essence, the performance has taken over the performer, and the character has usurped Craig's identity.

The film also – and quite effectively – explores conceptions of identity through sexuality and gender, most notably through Lotte. What would it be like to be a woman spending 15 minutes in the consciousness of a man (or vice versa)? What would it reveal, what questions would it raise? Lotte frequents Malkovich's portal and begins to think that maybe, on the inside, she's really a man. She also falls for Maxine, who expresses a similar interest but "only when you're in Malkovich." Is Maxine attracted to Malkovich's body when it's possessed by Lotte's spirit, or is she attracted to Lotte's spirit as she sees it through Malkovich's body? Is it essentially a same-sex or opposite sex relationship, and can a relationship be heterosexual in practice, but homosexual in spirit? And what does it mean for Malkovich to have a portal in the first place? "I think it's kind of sexy," Lotte explains, "sort of like he has a vagina. It's sort of vaginal, like he has a penis and a vagina. It's like Malkovich's feminine side." The film challenges rigid definitions of gender and sexuality, expositing that identity is something fluid rather than something that can be easily contained and categorized. In the end Maxine ends up with Lotte the woman, not Lotte as Malkovich and they're having a baby. "It's yours," Maxine tells Lotte, explaining that it was conceived while she was Malkovich. The word "lesbian" is never uttered by either because what they've experienced has made words like gay or straight, man or woman, meaningless. In the end, they're just two people and they're together.

This is a movie that forces you to ask a lot of questions but also keeps you thoroughly entertained. There is a scene where Malkovich enters the portal himself (and how, exactly, does one go about consciously entering their own consciousness?) and afterwards he tells Craig "I have seen a world that no man should see." Ah, but to see it is to believe it.


Anonymous said...

Norma, I love this film, and you did a fine job reviewing it. If Craig becomes a puppeteer as Malkovich, is it he who does so or Malkovich, or is their collective identity something new, unseen before?

Two of my favorite actors at their peak ... Cusack is all bewildered hurt, not many actors would let themselves be the thorough goat that he is in this picture. Keener is her voraciously sexual, hyper-intelligent best, with that brilliant laser smile that will cut through you like a knife.

A great review of a great film.

Norma Desmond said...

This is one of those movies that I know is great but still manages to surprise me with just how great it is every time I watch it. And John Malkovich gets a free pass for life from me for being willing to so completely mock himself.