One of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen, Being John Malkovich comes to use from director Spike Jonez. Here, he manages to get so bizarre that I’m not even sure where to begin, where to end, or what to tell you about. How he pitched the film to not only the studios, but to John Malkovich, could probably warrant its own film. But, alas, this is not a documentary; it’s a film in which people literally enter the head of John Malkovich, but only for fifteen minutes at a time.
Let’s backtrack. Craig (John Cusack) is a puppeteer who is currently unemployed. After his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), gets him to find a job, he winds up working on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building downtown, filing things for a Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). It’s behind one of these filing cabinets that he finds an old doorway. It leads to a portal which transports you into the head of John Malkovich, who plays himself for all of these experiences — and for some others, too. You get about fifteen minutes at a time, before you’re dumped into a ditch at the side of the road.
Craig, and a woman at work with whom he has desperately fallen in love, Maxine (Catherine Keener), decide to turn this into a business. $200 and you can take a trip into John Malkovich’s head for as long as the portal allows you. Meanwhile, Lotte has become obsessed with being inside Malkovich, claiming that she might be a transsexual. Maxine has started dating Malkovich, but only sees him when Lotte’s inside his head; the two are falling in love, but only when Lotte is in the man’s body.
Obviously, that causes some tensions at home, and it eventually leads to Craig staying for prolonged periods inside our favorite actor, while learning to control him much like his puppets. I’ll say no more, for fear of spoiling some of the insanity that comes of this, and of many of the subplots in the film, but suffice to say that this is a surrealist film through and through, breaking conventions left and right, and being all the better for it. A film like this can’t be forced to adhere to anything.
It’s funny how Being John Malkovich initially brings up deep philosophical questions and then promptly has anther character dismiss them, never to be brought up again. You’re told exactly what to think about, and then told not to think about it at all, because it would be a waste of time. You’re more here for the absurdity of the experience, not to question the soul, spirit, or whatever you want to call it. The portal exists, and that is all that we need to know. Anything past that is a waste of time for this tightly paced film.
The film is such an experience that describing it is useless. You simply have to see it to truly understand, and even then, it might take a while. There’s a certain style to the proceedings, a way in which Spike Jonez captures our attention, and then manages to surprise us just as much in the second half — at the time when we’ve grown accustomed to how he presents his work — which is amazing. After you’ve figured out what’s going on, a new twist is thrown in, and you’re surprised again. That’s quite the feeling.
How many movies give you a flashback of how an ape was traumatized as a child? And how many use that flashback as a way of allowing an ape to not only remove that trauma — something it had been going to therapy for — but also to explain how it can untie knots? This one does. Now, you might be wondering why there is an ape at all, in which case I’ll tell you that Lotte cares for injured animals, and takes them home. In one scene, she tells her husband that the ape will sleep with them, as it has had a hard day.
The film is also quite charming and funny, with more than a few laugh-out-loud parts to it. Being able to be a fictionalized version of John Malkovich is kind of inherently funny, and many of the scenes inside of his head are quite hysterical. That all works because of Malkovich’s portrayal of, well, himself, and how he’s completely unrestrained. He’s doing it for a laugh, sure, but considering he’s not holding back, not thinking he’ll be shamed for doing these things, the performance works.
Not to be outdone are the three other lead actors. Cusack, with long hair and an indecisive personality is strong, while Diaz is almost unrecognizable underneath the grunge of everyday life. Keener and Cusack have a really good chemistry, which works wonders when he’s trying to hit on her and she rejects him at every turn — except when he’s John Malkovich. Meanwhile, Orson Bean is fun to watch as a man who is, apparently, 105 years old, and still going strong, working on half of a floor which makes everyone have to bend down at all times due to its low ceiling. He must really love his job.
Being John Malkovich is such a strange experience that, even if it doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, I have to recommend. There’s no way to properly describe it; it simply has to be watched to be believed. It has a completely committed performance by the man in its title, as well as a style and a plot that can’t be imagined by most people. Go watch it, and have fun.