Before Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman were little more than two aspiring artists (the former a successful music video director, the latter a struggling screenwriter) who knew nothing about each other. Jonze was easily the more famous of the two, but not unlike Kaufman, any semblance of work on the silver screen still eluded his grasp. Meanwhile, after Kaufman’s script for Malkovich (which, in his own words, his original idea for was solely “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife”) was rejected again and again by production company and film studio executives, it was handed to Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it on to Jonze (then the boyfriend of his daughter, Sofia Coppola).
Jonze finally saw the brilliance in it that so many others couldn’t, and his bringing it to life singlehandedly developed a strong writer-director partnership between the two that’s still benefiting both geniuses today. If the two’s Adaptation.; Kaufman’s Synedoche, New York and Anomalisa; and Jonze’s Her (as of the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen Her, though I definitely plan to watch the rest in the near-future) aren’t enough to convince you of this, then I honestly don’t know what will.
Being John Malkovich isn’t a great movie because it brought two exceptionally gifted talents together, though. It’s a great movie because you can separate this entire backstory from it and still have a fresh, wildly original comedy that, at the risk of sounding clichéd, you truly have to see in order to believe. As a debut (both from a writing and directing standpoint), it’s seriously something spectacular.
The less you know about Malkovich’s plot, the better. Even the trailer, despite seemingly telling you everything there is to know about the film, cleverly masks most of the real twists and turns that elevate it from a really, really good movie to a near-masterpiece. Of course, I’ll have to explain the film’s entire setup in order to adequately discuss it, but if you really want to have the greatest experience watching it, then stop reading this review right now. I’m serious.
OK, it’s just us now. Being John Malkovich’s first shot is of a stage with a curtain draped over it. The curtain pulls back, and an elaborate puppet show begins, featuring a man who’s apparently in the midst of an existential crisis. (Although I can’t say how, the performance he puts on is perfectly reincorporated into the film’s events later.) The puppeteer—and the man the puppet is modeled after—is revealed to be Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), an unemployed street bum living alongside his pet-loving wife (a nearly unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), who, despite already having her hands more than full with said pets, really wants to have a baby with him nevertheless.
After finally finding a job at the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin-Flummer building (the explanation for such a floor existing is even wackier than you may think), he starts pursuing an affair with a fellow co-worker (Catherine Keener) who doesn’t return his affections… though what he accidentally discovers behind an ordinary filing cabinet changes everything. Crawling through the very small door he finds there, he’s hurtled straight into the mind of John Malkovich (played by himself), where he watches the actor going about his daily routines for around 15 minutes before being ejected into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
In other hands, this could have amounted to little more than a thin list of gimmicks, or a disparate collection of quirks that never fully gel into a coherent whole. Kaufman, however, doesn’t just fully commit himself to the bizarre, insane possibilities brought fourth by such ideas, but also shows incredible skill at forming them into a rich, gleefully unpredictable tale of sex, adultery, puppetry, and even mind control. Every character, no matter how weird or unlikable, has a distinct personality that makes them incredibly compelling throughout, and no matter how strange or dark their decisions soon get, they all make perfect sense for said personalities and the story’s progression. Not a single moment in this film ever feels fake or forced, and despite things starting off a bit slowly, all of it flows so incredibly well that it’s impossible to not be entertained.
Of course, none of this would have worked without Malkovich himself*. Armed with a performance just as excellent as everybody else’s, he brilliantly exaggerates his own public image with his signature kooky, deadpan style** (in fact, the film’s portrayal of him is even on Premiere’s “100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time” list), and provides a perfect launching point for what is arguably the film’s greatest moment: the moment when he finally tries the portal himself. Just think for a second: can you imagine that particular scene being nearly as memorable if anybody but him was at the center of it? I certainly can’t.
The final cherry on top of this deliciously idiosyncratic cake is Jonze himself. As the only one brave enough to take Kaufman’s screenplay on, his direction is smooth, confident, and—not unlike the film itself—filled with just the right amount of oddness. Whether these kinds of offbeat comedies are your thing or not, this modern classic (at least, in my view—and the Criterion Collection’s) is not one to be missed.
*Once the original script for Malkovich finally involved, well, John Malkovich, Kaufman knew that no other real-life actor could be written into the script nearly as well, and nobody else could play him but the man himself. Not everybody shared the same feelings, of course: when the film was pitched to New Line Studios, chairman Robert Shaye asked “Why the f*ck can’t it be called Being Tom Cruise?”, leading to the studio instantly dropping it. Their loss.
**Fun fact: in the film, Malkovich’s full name is John Horatio Malkovich… but in real life, it’s John Gavin Malkovich. Apparently, this change was made to subtly indicate that the film’s version of him isn’t exactly equal to his actual self, and is actually a slight variation of it. Clever.