BEING JOHN MALKOVICH A-
USA (93 mi) 1999 d: Spike Jonze
Not like anything else you’ve ever seen, this is a unique acid trip on identity, the determination of what’s real, and the idea of being yourself, which takes one through the contortions of personality, from doubt to slight interest to full-throttle obsession with the idea, all of which in this movie feels as if it’s just toying with the possibilities that come to mind. Turning oneself into a carnival exhibit, complete with patrons standing in line paying for the experience, even if only momentary, of being someone else—believe me, this is a different kind of theater altogether. Behind the mask, behind the reality, is a lonely puppeteer pulling the strings on a magnificently strange and despairing puppet act which no one wants to see, but which consumes the mind of John Cusack, looking a bit out of sorts and disheveled, while his frizzy haired wife, Cameron Diaz, has invited a wild kingdom of animals to come live in their apartment, including talking parrots and a monkey with bad dreams. Continually down on his luck, Cusack tries to get real and takes a turn in the job market as a file clerk in a strange and mysterious organization that exists on the 7 and ½ Floor where the lowered ceiling forces everyone to duck their heads, as it was apparently designed for the comfort of midgets. Not really fitting in, but fixated on a sensuous co-worker, Catherine Keener (never better), who makes it clear from the outset that she isn’t the least bit interested, yet he plunges his heart and soul in her direction anyway, but only gets as far as a quick after dinner drink, and only then because he could guess her first name in three tries. But this gets him nowhere, leaving him a discombobulated slab of jelly in her presence until one day he accidentally finds a strange door behind a file cabinet. When he enters, he experiences what it’s like to be inside the head of actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes, seeing and feeling what Malkovich experiences until he’s jettisoned out onto a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike.
This is not the sort of information one keeps under their hat, as it must be shared and the portal must be experienced, soon enough by his wife, who discovers a strange sexual titillation when she, as Malkovich, makes love with Keener. No sooner has Cusack discovered the secret phenomena of a lifetime, he’s soon discarded by his wife and Keener who want to canoodle together every fifteen minutes with Diaz as Malkovich. Cusack couldn’t just stand idly by, feeling as though he must defend his honor, so he locks his wife up in the monkey cage and trots off into the portal himself and uses his puppeteering expertise to manipulate Malkovich to say and do what he wants, which is to canoodle with Keener himself. After awhile, Keener soon discovers it’s been Cusack inside Malkovich, and not Diaz, so poor Cameron Diaz is discarded like day old bread, as Keener becomes fascinated by the power of the puppeteer. John Malkovich himself, tired of being contorted into a glob of putty in Cusack’s hands, follows Keener one day and discovers the line of people waiting to spend fifteen minutes inside Malkovich. So with much commotion, he jumps to the front of the line and insists that since he actually is John Malkovich, that he should get some special consideration as he wants in, which easily leads to the most profoundly peculiar sequence in the film where Malkovich is dining in a restaurant and everyone there is a Felliniesque version of himself. Like a Twilight Zone episode, Malkovich stares into the world of Malkovich and becomes just as obsessed as everyone else, completely absorbed by the idea of himself.
Time passes and Cusack has mastered his craft, as he’s figured out how to remain inside and gotten Malkovich to change his career from a master actor to the world’s greatest puppeteer, which is met with acclaim the world over, with praise from the likes of fellow actors Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. Meanwhile he pals around with Charlie Sheen, who goes gaga when he hears Malkovich’s initial description of the lesbian force surging inside of him. Keener and Malkovich are the new couple making the cover of all the tabloid magazines, popular the world over, and puppet shows are all the rage. Life couldn’t be sweeter. But of course, it’s all an illusion, as someone else is pulling the strings behind the mask, while John Malkovich himself has all but disappeared. The sheer exhilaration of ideas here is stupefyingly ridiculous, as they just keep pouring out in astonishing fashion as the movie progresses, continuing right up through the end credits when Bjork sings her own hushed, barely audible personal anthem, Björk - Amphibian - YouTube (4:36). Were it not for the somewhat infantile and adolescent expressions of love exhibited here, where a married couple sell each other out in a minute with little or no regard, or where it’s just as easy to step over someone to get what you want, where the concept of self-interest is literally raised onto the level of a Hollywood throne, with adoring and worshipping fans happy that you made that choice. The finale is as cinematically lovely as it is perplexing, as older time traveling vessels (Malkovich) are discarded for newer and younger versions, making the idea of self resemble the evolving mutations of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which continually undergoes interior transformations that may not even be initially recognizable, but soon becomes the dominant force behind the person.