Being John Malkovich (1999)


(director: Spike Jonze; screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman; cinematographer: Lance Acord; editor: Eric Zumbrunnen; cast: John Cusack (Craig Schwartz), Cameron Diaz (Lotte), Catherine Keener (Maxine), John Malkovich (Himself), Orson Bean (Dr. Lester), Mary Kay Place (Floris); Runtime: 112; USA Films; 1999)

“This is the kind of strange film that one would expect to be released as an art-house indie, yet here it is playing as a mainstream mall film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

First-time film director and former music video director Spike Jonze has come up with a tantalizing parody from Charles Kaufman’s original screenplay. It’s a brilliantly conceived psychological, personal and sexual identity study. The viewer must suspend his disbelief about what is being digested. It is a playful and provocative look at determining one’s identity and how celebrity is viewed from within. It features an actual actor celebrity, John Malkovich. He is playing himself but it is really his fictional self being uncovered, as his mind is being entered by others through a portal that leads to his inner being. The hustlers who come up with a way of entering his portal are charging tourists $200 for a 15-minute sightseeing trip down that path.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), the film’s wormy and unemployed New York puppeteer and unlikely protagonist, is despondent that he is not successful in his career. He is someone who can’t seem to find the kind of work he believes he was put on earth to do. The last straw for Craig is seeing his successful competitor put up a gimmicky display overhanging a highway in Westchester County of a gigantic 60-foot Emily Dickinson, entitled “The Belle of Amherst.” He rationalizes his failure to get noticed by stating, “Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate.”

At home Craig’s schlumpy pet store employed wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), keeps an assortment of pets in the house, including a chimpanzee whom she loves more than him. Craig is nagged by her to get any job. So he scans the newspapers and seeks out a job as a filing clerk for the Lester Corporation, absurdly located on the 7 1/2th floor in a Manhattan skyscraper, that has low ceilings forcing everyone to stoop when walking. The running gag being that the overhead and the rent are also low.

Employed on the same floor as our hero is an attractive, fast-talking, sarcastic bundle of promising sex, Maxine Lund (Keeler), who has our hero tongue-tied and in a flirtatious mood. Craig is not rebuffed by her open dislike of his physical appearance.

What also excites Craig about his new job is that he discovers a portal behind his filing cabinet that goes tunnel-like down into the mind of John Malkovich (Ummm!) and after 15 minutes he gets thrown out on the grassy side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Since the glimpse into Malkovich’s head is more or less fictional, it’s delightfully funny to find Craig turning up inside the man’s head and to find the actor eating toast and reading The Wall Street Journal in his Park Avenue apartment.

A business partnership between the scheming Maxine and Craig is consummated, as the two decide to advertise in the newspaper and take celebrity seeking visitors for tours when the day businesses are closed at night.

When Lotte experiences the portal, she is exhilarated being inside the actor’s head and watching him on a date with Maxine. Lotte becomes the second member of the Schwartz family to fall head-over-heels for the irresistible Maxine. It seems when inside the head of the actor, the couple is able to attract the elusive Maxine; but, when left to their own blah identities, she treats them as nobodies.

Having their fun with this nutty script is Orson Bean as the 105-year-old entrepreneur, Dr. Lester, who is the head of the Lester Corporation. He is devilishly amusing as the lecherous businessman and the man who knows more about the portal than it appears he does, as he uses its secrets as a way of living forever by changing identities. Floris (Mary Kay Place) plays a confused secretary who is an expert on speech impediments, but who doesn’t realize she suffers from one herself. She gives an outstanding supporting performance, adding more punch to an already zany story.

The film was brilliant in spots, but towards the end ran out of script to sustain its steady diet of farcical comedy. But even as it was petering out, it still managed to have enough brilliant glimpses at celebrity to remain appealing.

What makes this far-fetched premise work so surprisingly well is that the actors get the joke and run with it, even flushing out seemingly irrelevant things about one’s inner being along the way that are fun to scrutinize. And if anything more can be said about John Malkovich — it is that he comes across as a good person, someone with a lively sense of humor and someone who is able to heartily have a laugh at himself; even if, it is supposedly at his own expense. This is the kind of strange film that one would expect to be released as an art-house indie, yet here it is playing as a mainstream mall film.