#34 Being John Malkovich

(1999, Spike Jonze)

“It’s my head!”

Imagine if you will there is a portal into somebody’s head. It allows you to see what they see, feel what they feel, think what they think. If I could choose whose head I could enter, I would most likely pick screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s, a man who produces some of the most bizarre but most original movies out there. He has written a movie about a man getting his memories of his ex-girlfriend erased, told from the perspective of him seeing his deteriorating memories in reverse (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). He has written a movie about himself writing a movie about himself (Adaptation). And, of course, he has written this movie, in what is criminally the sole movie he has written that features in the 1001 Movies.

Being John Malkovich is about Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a down-on-his-luck puppeteer. As money becomes tight, he takes on a menial filing job at the 7 ½ floor of a large building in Manhattan. The office is strange, situated between two floors with a ridiculously low ceiling. Oh, and it contains a door that leads directly in the head of actor John Malkovich (playing himself) for fifteen minutes before you’re thrown out at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig spins this into a business idea with co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), but things get very weird after Craig’s wife Lottie (a scarily unrecognisable Cameron Diaz) goes through and questions her sexual identity.

Quite frankly, this film is hard to fully describe. It’s hard to think of another film with even a remotely similar premise. From the surreal office building filled with quirky employees (a hard-of-hearing secretary and a lecherous boss among them) to the bizarre love triangle that directly involves Malkovich as a sort-of unwitting fourth party (don’t ask), this movie is weird, and if it had been handled badly it could have spun out into Videodrome-style nonsense.

Fortunately, the script is oddly coherent, and former music video director Spike Jonze manages to hold everything together. While the movie frequently makes you throw up your hands and go “WHAT”, its own internal logic sticks, and everything makes sense in a very strange way. Some aspects of the plot are never fully explained, admittedly, but some things – such as what on earth a portal into John Malkovich’s head is doing inside a Manhattan office building – are probably best left unexplained.

However, in its odd eccentricity, it’s quite difficult to really identify with what’s going on in the film, and the characters are almost all fundamentally unlikeable. Craig is a dowdy loser, Lottie is skittish and unpredictable, and Maxine is a bitch. Despite this, however, all the actors here do a phenomenal job, especially Malkovich himself, who parodies himself spectacularly.

The movie ends up being little more than an entertaining curiosity. It’s got some very funny moments, but the concept is so absurd that there’s little emotional weight behind this. It tries to create some, but ultimately you’re still just sitting there wondering what’s going to happen next rather than connecting in any meaningful way.

That said, while it is a curiosity, it is very worth watching in its sheer strangeness.

Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener & John Malkovich
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Produced by Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin, Vincent Landay
Music score by Carter Burwell
Cinematography by Lance Acord
Edited by Eric Zumbrunnen

Favourite Scene: When Malkovich enters his own head. The results are fairly trippy, even if he does sort of turn into a Pokémon as a result.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why would you ask Charlie Sheen for advice, John? Why? No one would do that. I was also bugged by this scene since I kept expecting Sheen to say “Winning!”

Watch it if: You want to see through John Malkovich’s eyes
Avoid it if: The pseudo-lesbian love triangle…thing melts your brain

Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 4 January 2012

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Posted on April 11, 2012, in 1990s, Comedy, Fantasy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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