Being John Malkovich is unquestionably the freshest, most original – yes, I’ll say it – best movie of the year. (Correction: now that I’ve seen The Insider, I’ll have to call it a tie).
In the past, people have appreciated a warning when a movie is best seen without any foreknowledge, and this movie is one of them. If you’re at all interested, then go see it before you read this or any other review.
Still with me? Okay.
Being John Malkovich is a surrealist comedy.
(Surrealism is a movement in art that follows the logic of dreams. Surrealist images are often funny or absurd, yet they are not purely comic. There is usually some underlying irrational logic behind them.)
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer (of marionettes) in New York. That is to say, he’s unemployed. Schwartz is very good at it, and a few scenes of puppeteering (performed by Phil Huber) are quite impressive, but they don’t put food on the table.
Craig is married to Lottie (Cameron Diaz), a naïve, gentle soul who loves and keeps animals. She works at the pet store to support Craig, her menagerie, and herself.
Craig’s unemployment is becoming a strain on the couple’s finances, so he takes a job as a file clerk. At work, he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener). He’s smitten with her, and she knows it. Whenever they talk, she always gets right to the point, which as she sees it, is sex. She strings him along for a while, occasionally letting him buy her a drink.
While filing one day, Craig discovers a little door, like the one Alice found at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Naturally, he opens the door, and behind it lies a little tunnel. He crawls through, emerging on the other side, inside John Malkovich’s head. Craig watches in amazement as his new host travels through the city. After about fifteen minutes, he’s ejected from Malkovich, slimy and dirty, into a ditch on the New Jersey Turnpike.
He tells his wife about the amazing discovery, and she insists on seeing for herself. Lottie takes the trip through Malkovich and loves it. Malkovich has just come out of the shower and is toweling himself off, which Lottie really likes. Afterwards, Lottie decides that she is a transsexual.
Back at the office, Craig tells Maxine about the Malkovich portal, and the two go into business together, selling tickets to the experience.
One day when Lottie is in Malkovich, Maxine gets his number and calls him (pretending to be an avid fan). She asks him if he would join her for dinner, and before he can say no, she tells him when and where. Both Lottie and Malkovich make a note of it. Lottie goes back into Malkovich that night, hoping she/he will have sex with Maxine.
A jumble of infatuations emerges between Craig, Lottie, and Maxine, with Malkovich forming the imaginary fourth corner of this space-time love triangle.
Like in a dream, the human feelings in Being John Malkovich are ordinary, blunt, and strong. Like in a dream, they are also the key to understanding what it all means. When you look at how Craig, Lottie, and Maxine feel, you understand what the movie is saying. Actually, the underlying story is rather mundane.
What makes this movie so great, then, is the surreal detail that adorns the story, from set design to costumes, to hairstyles.
Although these details are a rich source of conversation and writing material, I think it best not to say too much. But do know that the “Malkovich portal” is just the tip of the surreal iceberg floating in the film’s subconscious.
What I can safely say is that this is director Jonze’s first feature film. Before Malkovich he directed commercials and music videos, and acted in Three Kings (as the fourth “king”). The screenwriter is first-timer Charlie Kaufman. Perhaps it is because they are both novices that they risked it all and made no compromises.
Being John Malkovich has to be seen to be appreciated. No review can do it justice. It is the kind of well-made, completely original movie that reminds me why I love going to the movies in the first place.