Unsung Gems – ‘Being John Malkovich’

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Unsung Gems is a look back and reflection on great motion pictures that often slip under the radar of public consciousness , whether as ignored relics of a previous era, standout efforts overshadowed by competition or circumstance, or simply unseen classics damned by a lack of time in the spotlight.

Being John Malkovich
Directed by Spike Jonze
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
US, 1999

It takes real skill to come up with a film of indisputable weirdness and make it high concept, so from this salient fact we can safely conclude that Charlie Kaufman is one hell of a writer. 1999’s Being John Malkovich, Kaufman and director Spike Jonze’s screen debut, can be described in one curt sentence: ‘Struggling and restless puppeteer discovers a portal leading into the mind of actor John Malkovich’.

That’s it, that’s the premise. Throw in a five foot high office floor, an ape with abandonment issues, bald Charlie Sheen and one of cinema’s most benign immortality seeking conspiracy syndicates and you have a wonderfully surreal yet illogically grounded experience.

The puppeteer is Craig Schwartz, played by a near unrecognizable John Cusack, whose street art displays are as successful as the punches to his face suggest. Home life’s not much better, where his dowdy, animal loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, again looking nothing like the film star of the same name) devotes more time to her array of neurotic house pets than to her equally caged spouse. In need of cash, Craig takes an accountancy job at an office building and becomes a resident of floor 7 ½, accessible by hijacking the elevator controls and necessitating the need to stoop at all times. Here he finds two things that will change his unfulfilled life forever: Maxine (Catherine Keener), the smoky and sultry colleague who steals his unrequited affections, and a small tunnel hidden behind a filing cabinet which leads to the aforementioned portal.

Once inside, a person can remain inside the consciousness of Malkovich, seeing his life from behind his eyes, for fifteen minutes before being dumped by the roadside of the New Jersey Turnpike. Forming a tryst with Maxine, they quickly turn this existential discovery into a money swindling scheme. What initially is a hilariously and dissonantly simple set up is complicated by a growing love triangle between Craig, Maxine and Lotte, in which Maxine becomes a lover to Malkovich when he is occupied by either of the married couple. The ‘ride’ takes a further turn when Craig, using his puppeteer skills, finds that he can actually control Malkovich, inevitably leading to a show down when the actor catches on and finds out about the operation. Chaos, if it weren’t already prominent, ensues.

A real joy of Being John Malkovich stems from the fact that the plot only really becomes hysterically ridiculous when you look back at it, and summarize it, in retrospect. Despite the core set up being fundamentally absurd, it is treated in such a matter of fact manner by the protagonists and Director than you actually end up forgetting how bizarre the idea is. This should really serve as a lesson to aspiring surrealist filmmakers; play the hinky material straight faced and you can actually make a serviceable plot out of it. Rather than fall into Lynchian excess and play up the crazy, Kaufman and Jonze focus on the lead trio and deliver a strange subversion on the perils of discovering treasure, from betrayal and loss, to decay of the soul and ultimate mutually assured destruction.

Of course, this isn’t a po-faced outing, and the humor within the script in particularly ranges from Python-esque belly laughs to darkly macabre hilarity. More comfortable jokes have Craig’s boss, Orson Bean’s Dr Lester, convinced he has a speech impediment due to his near deaf secretary’s insistences, while more stark laugh or stare material includes Malkovich entering the portal to his own mind and encountering a restaurant inhabited entirely by various other versions of himself. Where the film may falter as a drama, it thrives as a black comedy. This strain of cheerful immorality allows the audience to enjoy the journey rather than cringe at the darkening motives, especially at the nightmarish conclusion.

It’s all part of the charm and genius levels of storytelling, right down to the choices it makes. John Malkovich himself, something of an eccentric thespian figure within Hollywood and ripe for self-parody and caricature, is the perfect choice as the titular voyeur vessel, and his gleeful participation is essential to making the film work. It’s simply impossible to imagine it having the same levels of offbeat excellence with anyone else at the fore (despite one potential producer supposedly suggesting a change to Being Tom Cruise…).

While Malkovich plays with his image, the triumvirate of Cusack, Diaz and Keener drop theirs in a wonderful show of versatility. Each is utterly convincing playing against type, with the first two in particular giving possibly career defining turns well outside their comfort zones. Despite not being an actress you’d ever likely consider to be a good fit as a sexy femme fatale, Catherine Keener is expert as the maddening, self serving Maxine. The fact that each of the actresses were originally slotted to play each other’s characters comes as no real surprise, but their switch adds another facet to the film’s character, a small quirk of a detail which adds to the tapestry of strange and brilliant.

Ultimately, however, it’s the story which sees Being John Malkovich through to the joyful finish line. Despite all the eccentricity, the film maintains its close relationship with the interaction and destinies of character, even if half of the main quartet is royally screwed over on many philosophical levels by film’s end. There’s room for at least two happy endings, and the tone is one of impossible hope, self discovery leading to inner truth and altered life contentment. Through Malkovich, the trio can discern who they really are, what they’re willing to do in order to serve themselves, and finally emerge from their wacky arcs exactly where they deserve to be. At the centre of one of the most subversively off hand films ever made, and one of the decade’s most unforgettably strange outings, is a simplistic, satisfying human heart. Everything else is fabulously avant-garde window dressing.

This trait of managing multiple levels of crazy in order to reach a more soulful and reality adhering conclusion has proved to be Charlie Kaufman’s greatest strength as one of Hollywood’s best, and weirdest, writers. This is particularly clear with the equally superb Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that bagged him the Oscar he was nominated for here, and also the fascinatingly self-conscious Adaptation. There is, as the cliché goes, method in the madness. Credit must also go to Jonze, for his ability to keep alive both the vision of the architect and to keep it running on an even keel, to play it straight. David Lynch this is not.

Sensational, it most certainly is.

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