It pains me to admit that I almost didn’t catch Being John Malkovich during its theater run. Even worse, it was a last-minute selection because Sleepy Hollow was sold out. Naturally, I soon realized the fortuitous nature of this little inconvenience. Even more thrilling than this virgin experience at the hands of a Charlie Kaufman script was the pleasure of witnessing fellow theatergoers filing into the lobby and asking each other, “What the fuck was that?” As the first collaborative effort between Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich is bizarre not only in its concept but also in its fierce originality. This darkly amusing film, which has amazing performances from all of its actors, revolves around the rather horrifying prospect that one’s consciousness is vulnerable to invasion. As the film’s title suggests, the violated mind in question belongs to John Horatio Malkovich (Malkovich playing a variation of himself). Those who travel through Malkovich’s portal thoroughly enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, and despite the banality of Malkovich’s actions — eating dry toast, giving dictation, ordering bath mats — they enjoy being Malkovich merely because he is famous. This universal infatuation with Malkovich persists despite the fact that none of the characters can even name a movie in which Malkovich has appeared.
You know, he really was great in that jewel thief movie.
Potentially, this review could attempt to tackle this film’s surreal aspects or the metaphysical implications involved with being or becoming someone else, but I’m narrowing the focus to a discussion of the characters’ motivations for violating Malkovich as well as these characters’ respective consequences. Nobody violates Malkovich quite as much as Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a disgruntled puppeteer whose disenchantment is fairly obvious from the one-sided conversation he holds with a monkey: “[C]onsciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer. And all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work. And they won’t allow it. Because I raise issues.” Craig wants to be like celebrity puppeteer Derek Mantini (that “gimmicky bastard”), but it appears that “today’s wintery economic climate” only has room for one famous professional puppeteer. Obviously, Craig is quite uncomfortable in his own skin, and the film emphasizes this claustrophobia by sending him to work on the cramped 7 1/2th floor for the Lester Corporation. Despite the fact that he is married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), Craig quickly becomes obsessed with his stone-cold bitch of a co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener). Driven by this obsession, Craig not only wants to be inside of Maxine sexually but also wants to penetrate her consciousness. Maxine, of course, wants nothing to do with Craig until he discovers the portal, and, because Craig would do anything for Maxine, he follows her capitalistic lead and agrees to sell tickets to Malkovich’s head for “$200 a pop.” At that point, Craig decides that it’s okay to steal someone else’s consciousness for profit and gain; later, he goes even further by “staying” in Malkovich to fulfill his own career goals (using Malkovich’s notoriety to launch into puppetting) and personal desires (using Malkovich’s money to keep Maxine). Thus, Craig becomes like the fraud puppeteer that he hates so much, but Craig is even more reprehensible because he stole Malkovich’s consciousness to get there.
Meanwhile, Lotte has been searching for her own identity. When she first travels into Malkovich, she begins to identify as a transexual, so she becomes Malkovich again in order to have sex with a knowing Maxine. For her part, Maxine gets off on having two pairs of adoring eyes simultaneously upon her, and she’s also interested in the Malkovich portal for her continuing personal financial gain. Yet, as unscrupulous as Maxine is, her misdeeds pale in comparison to Craig’s vindictive and selfish acts. After Craig jealously locks Lotte in a cage, Craig brags that soon, Malkovich will be nothing but a mere marionette for Craig to control.
[As a side note, Kaufman’s script delves into massive hilarity when Charlie Sheen shows up. Malkovich gets so freaked out about being made to talk by “some thing” that he calls Charlie, who delivers a rather unhelpful hypothesis: “Hot lesbian witches, think about it. It’s fucking genius.” Interestingly, Kaufman originally envisioned Kevin Bacon in the friend role, which certainly wouldn’t have killed the movie, but one producer actually tried to talk Kaufman into rewriting the script as “Being Tom Cruise.” (Oh, the horror…)]
Soon enough, Craig the puppeteer does learn to fully control Malkovich the celebrity. Then, Craig/Malkovich performs his “Dance of Disillusionment and Despair” for Maxine. At this point in the movie, the dance is about Craig’s supposed fulfillment of having sex with Maxine and becoming the successful and respected puppeteer of his dreams. But Craig still realizes that he isn’t getting what he really wants, which is to be inside Maxine’s skin (as he earlier expresses to the “Maxine Action Figure”). By the end of the film, Craig finally leaves Malkovich, who is temporarily freed but almost immediately invaded by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) and his friends. Later, we see Malkovich dressed in Lester’s sweater and married to ditzy secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place) as he offers Charlie a shot of immortality. And so the cycle continues.
The respective fates of Craig, Lotte, and Maxine are slightly puzzling but altogether fitting. Kaufman allows Maxine to be happy, and, since Lotte decided not to join Lester by entering Malkovich, Lotte is let off the hook too. One wonders whether Maxine and Lotte will truly remain happy. The presumption, of course, is that they remain a couple and Craig is forced to watch, which brings us to the punishment of Craig, whose misdeeds are much worse than those of Maxine, who uses Malkovich for her own capitalistic gain but never personally enters Malkovich’s consciousness. In addition, Maxine’s conscience begins to bother her during pregnancy (she withdraws from Craig/Malkovich), and Maxine seems genuinely pleased and tender when she reencounters Lotte, the “father” of her child. Of course, since Maxine isn’t a nice person at all, one wonders why Kaufman lets her off so easily at the end of the movie. Perhaps this is because Maxine is truly happy with who she is and doesn’t want to be anyone else (which is why she never enters the Malkovich portal). In contrast, Craig loathes himself so much that he not only wants to take temporary trips into Malkovich’s consciousness but also intends to reside there permanently, which leads to the conclusion that, in Kaufman’s eyes, this is an offense worthy of lifelong punishment. So, Craig is absorbed, that is, trapped and forever doomed to watch the world through young Emily’s eyes with no control whatsoever of the body.
And what of the fate of John Horatio Malkovich? On the surface, Malkovich hasn’t really done anything wrong, that is, unless one views him as an already practicing and altogether willing marionette in his acting roles. As an actor, Malkovich’s job also requires him to manipulate his characters and his audience, and some might even say that Malkovich is equally adept as a puppeteer and a puppet. So, whatever Kaufman is attempting to say about actors here, well, who knows. And, like Craig, this movie presents no definitive answers to its characters’ predicaments. It only raises the issues.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.