Being John Malkovich
In 1992, actor John Malkovich appeared as a clown in a Woody Allen movie called Shadows and Fog. Veteran British actor Donald Pleasence, best known for his role in The Great Escape, played a doctor in that movie. Pleasence played a preacher in a 1968 movie called Will Penny, with Charlton Heston in the title role. (With me so far?) In 1995, your humble reviewer met Charlton Heston at a Republican fundraiser in Dallas. This, therefore, gives me three degrees of separation from John Malkovich. (Your mileage may vary.)
The conceit of Being John Malkovich is that you can reduce that “Six Degrees of Separation” we’re all supposed to have down to one. For two hundred dollars, we’re told, you can enter a portal leading into the brain (consciousness?) (soul?) of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. You are with him as he eats breakfast, or rehearses a play, or catches a cab. After your time is up, you fall into a drainage ditch on the New Jersey Turnpike and have to hitchhike back to New York.
Now this… this is a brilliant idea, no mistake. In our fantasies about writing the Great American Screenplay, this is the kind of idea we wish we all had. It’s an idea that’s just beyond the cutting edge of reality while still being instantly comprehensible to everyone. It gives you a lead character that everyone knows and recognizes. And its one sentence summary — evoked by John Cusack as “You see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes, then after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike!” — may be the best pitch since “Arnold Schwartzenegger and Danny DeVito are twins.”
And, of course, with this wonderful, creative idea as the backbone, you can do pretty much whatever you want. You can assemble all sorts of characters, put them in almost any setting you want, slide them through the portal, and see what they’re like on the other side. You can, literally, do anything with this idea.
This is the promise of Being John Malkovich, but it is also the danger. C.S. Lewis noted that the problem with great ideas like this is that they exploit themselves spontaneously. Lewis, talking about his big idea in The Screwtape Letters, said that his demonic correspondence, like a runaway horse, “would run away with you for a thousand pages if you gave it its head.”
What happens to Being John Malkovich is that writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze give their imaginations free rein, and the movie runs away on them. Being John Malkovich is less like a runaway horse than it is like a runaway carousel, with horses and bodies flying around at top speed in dizzying arcs. But there’s no centripetal force to keep the movie from spinning wildly out of control. Being John Malkovich spits out eccentric, inventive ideas at a mile a minute. Each of the ideas isn’t really bad, in and of itself, but there are so many of them, piled one on top of the other, that the whole movie is a walk through Bizarro World.
Take the characters, for instance. John Cusack is a quirky puppeteer whose idea of puppet shows is Heloise and Abelard instead of Punch and Judy. Early on, he gets beat up by a critic, which apparently happens often. Cameron Diaz plays his wife, who’s sort of a cross between a young Geena Davis and Dr. Doolittle. (She’s got the funniest line in the movie, which I won’t share with you, as it changes the course of the movie.) Catherine Keener plays his co-worker and partner in the burgeoning business of sharing slices of Malkovich’s life. She seems perfectly normal for a while until she becomes a walking icon of lust. (Really.) It says something about Being John Malkovich that the only character who looks and acts normal the whole way through is Charlie Sheen.
But despite all of the layers of self indulgent weirdness, Being John Malkovich has three fantastic, wonderful elements that make it a must see. The first, and most obvious, is the performance of Malkovich himself. Malkovich may not win Best Actor, but he’s the Best Sport of the year for even agreeing to participate in this project. It’s easy to imagine what would have happened had he said no — we might have gotten something skin-crawlingly godawful like “Being Fran Drescher” — but Malkovich shows us all why this movie is only possible with an undeniably great actor in the title role. Part of the role is an inspired self-parody, part of the role shows off the best possession scenes since Steve Martin in All of Me, and part of the role is his participation in two of the weirdest sequences ever shot on film.
These are the other two reasons to see the movie. Twice, we’re transported into John Malkovich’s subconscious, and these two scenes completely redeem the movie. All of the bizarre and odd things that infest the movie come together in two thrilling, jaw dropping moments that are completely original while being completely unlike each other.
The key thing to remember about Being John Malkovich is that the whole concept of the portal is a misdirection. The audience isn’t really being sucked into Malkovich’s brain, it’s being sucked into the imagination of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. This is not a comfortable place for everyone, and when you get dumped out of the theater, you may feel disoriented and dizzy. But the high points of this thrill ride are well worth the price of admission.