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Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a struggling but very talented puppeteer who lives in near squalor with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Forced to take an office job to make ends meet, he lands a position as a file clerk on the 7½ floor of LesterCorp. in Manhattan. The entire floor is only five and half feet high so everyone must stoop while standing. What’s more strange is the small door he finds behind the filing cabinet. Just big enough to crawl through, when inside, he finds he’s transported into the head of famous actor John Malkovich, where he can stay for 15 minutes before being dumped on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Astonishing as it is, he eventually reveals the door to others, including Maxine (Catherine Keener), a co-worker with whom Craig is infatuated. She gets him to turn the door into a cash business, allowing people to experience life as a movie star for a short time (15 minutes of fame is the same amount of time artist Andy Warhol claimed we would all have). Meanwhile, the more time Schwartz spends in Malkovich’s mind, the more he finds his puppeteering skills allow him to control the actor. He soon influences the star to reinvigorate the art of puppetry, abandoning his acting career in the process. The real Malkovich beings to sense things are off and soon discovers what is happening, finding Schwartz and demanding he be allowed to visit his own mind.
Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich is an unusual film but also one of the most original in cinema. Humorous but played seriously, the film finds just the right tone throughout, keeping the surprises coming even after you’re sure no more could be made. Cusack and Keener are excellent in the leads, with Cusack especially neurotic, but it is Malkovich who own this film in a performance that is not particularly true of himself, but a living breathing caricature that still feels genuine. With his name in the title, the role takes a certain bravery, and he delivers with gusto. And while we sit and marvel at the first half, seeing life through his eyes, what happens in the second is even more rewarding. This is great movie making.
Lotte, who has transgender thoughts and is also attracted to Maxine, finds fulfillment while she is inside Malkovich’s brain, using him to date and have sex with Craig’s co-worker. On the flip side, Maxine is happy to be having sex with a movie star. Disillusioned by both women, Craig also uses Malkovich to go to bed with Maxine. Meanwhile, all of this is having a strange effect on the real actor. To his friend, Charlie Sheen, he confesses his feelings of paranoia. Sheen advices him to follow Maxine, which he does and finds a line of people waiting to use the portal in the company where she works. Angered, he pushes through and meets Craig, who is shocked to find the actor has discovered the operation. Malkovich demands to try the portal and when he does, he slips into a weird, terrifying world where every head is his and the only word he hears is his own name.
Who are we? Why are we unique? What makes us special? The answer to all of these is our mind. There are times when we might want people to read our minds and times when people wish they could, but imagine if all of that were possible. For John Malkovich, it suddenly is, and while entering our minds might seem redundant, this is something else entirely. The ‘portal’ to his brain is not so much a gateway as a ‘simulation’, as Craig calls it. It mostly lets the user see through the actor’s eyes and we soon find that a bit of the user is part of that experience. For Malkovich, that experience is a nightmare where every face on every person is his, all speaking a single world over and over: his name. But why? The presence of another Malkovich persona in the already established Malkovich portal causes a failure of sorts in how the projection works. With each of the other temporary hosts in his head, they see versions of the life they partially influence and create, even if they don’t know it. When Malkovich looks through his own eyes, he sees himself and it frightens him, as it should. The repetition of his name is only an indication of the error in the portal, like a needle on a skipping record. When the puppet is also the puppet master, the strings disappear and control is not just lost, it is doesn’t exist.
Jonze and Kaufman could have easily made this a joke, with Malkovich living a few minutes of his normal life while running commentary in his head about the experience. Instead, they challenge the audience with something surprising, a vision that, as Malkovich tells Craig, no man should see, turning what might be considered funny into a nightmare. We are asked to consider our own minds and wonder what if we could, abstractly, see through our own eyes. Jonze and Kaufman candidly suggest we are vain, and perhaps, more so as a celebrity where the the culture of fame has lifted actors to prestige. That the real John Malkovich clearly understands this, and allows it to be ridiculed says much about the man and the film. This is the defining moment in Being John Malkovich, answering the silent question everyone is asking as the premise continues to unfold: what would it be like to enter our own minds? It’s a place we aren’t meant to see.
John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich