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Empire List #441: Being John Malkovich


You know the old saying “you can’t make this stuff up”? Writer Charlie Kaufman comes up with movie ideas that are so ludicrous they simply have to be made up. If you look at some of his writing credits, it’s a miracle any of his movies ever got made. How did he pitch the script for “Being John Malkovich” and got Spike Jonze to direct it? “A man finds a portal into the head of John Malkovich and is then ejected into a New Jersey turnpike. Oh, and the portal is located in the 7 ½ floor of an office building in New York City.” If I had been the Hollywood producer listening to that pitch, I would probably have had a few follow-up questions.

I first heard of this movie when I saw the trailer on TV during one of my summer vacations in Quebec City. My first thought was, that is one weird movie. My second was “who the heck is John Malkovich?” Eventually I saw “Con Air” on VHS and then I knew. Then around 2009, when I was living off-campus at the university of Sherbrooke, I saw that “Being John Malkovich” was available on iTunes rentals. By then I got curious and since I had really liked Spike Jonze’s and Charlie Kaufman’s other collaboration “Adaptation,” I thought it was worth checking out.

John Cusack plays Craig Schwartz, an unemployed puppeteer in New York City. His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, hiding under bushy hair and a lot of make-up) is so obsessed with pets she has animal cages in their apartment. In an attempt to get out of his rut, Craig gets a filing job at LesterCorp, located on the 7 ½ floor of the Martin Flemmer Building. That strange architectural design is explained during an orientation video presented by the company owner, Dr Lester (Orson Bean).

Despite the low ceiling, the offices of LesterCorp are apparently like any other boring modern offices. Craig even tries an office romance with fellow employee Maxine (Catherine Keener) but is quickly rejected. He becomes interesting in her eyes when he discovers a hidden door behind one of the filing cabinet. The door reveals a dark tunnel that seems to go on forever. Curious, Craig crawls through the tunnel until he sucked inside and finds himself looking at a table through the eyes of actor John Malkovich. Fifteen minutes later he falls somewhere in New Jersey.

Instead of asking questions to management or getting his brain checked, he tells Maxine about the portal and together they decide to charge people $200 for the experience of looking through the eyes of John Malkovich. Then things start to get weird.

Not only does Craig end up telling Lotte about the portal, but also Lotte ends up falling for Maxine while in Malkovich’s body. Craig becomes jealous, locks up Lotte in one of her animal cages, and dates Maxine through Malkovich. And you thought Internet dating was weird.

What is amazing is how these characters all deal with these situations. They all seem to inhabit this alternate universe where somehow it makes perfect to charge people to go inside somebody’s head. Wouldn’t any of the people going into Malkovich’s think about telling somebody about this? That would make for a confusing Tweet: “I am now going inside John Malkovich.”

You have to give Malkovich credit though. The script makes him jump through some pretty weird hoops as people turn his head into their own personal amusement park. Meanwhile John Cusack evolves from an under-achieving puppeteer to a power-hungry manipulator who thinks Malkovich should become his new puppet.

The movie is definitely worth watching for two sequences in particular. The first is when Malkovich discovers the portal and demands to go inside. What happens when you go inside your own head? Think about the effect that happens when two mirrors face each other. The second sequence is when two characters enter the portal at the same time and start fighting inside Malkovich’s subconscious. As they fight they jump through some of Malkovich’s memories, changing the setting every ten second. That must cause one massive headache.

As creative as the movie is, and as good as the performances are, by the end I thought the same thing I thought the first time I saw the previews: this is weird. It’s not just the concept; it’s the characters and the way they behave. I just didn’t buy the romance between Lotte and Maxine. It felt forced and I felt sorry for Malkovich for being used as a puppet in their little game. Plus, why a portal into that guy’s head, of all people? You want to make it interesting? How about a portal into the head of Bruce Campbell? I’d pay for that.  

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