Movie Reviews

Being John Malkovich

Took a look at a classic this weekend and was reminded why it’s in my collection.

Plot: Craig, a puppetier, (John Cusack) faces pressure from within and from his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) to get a job while waiting for show business to again–if it ever really did–support his passions. He gets a job in an office with low ceilings and falls in lust with a woman, Maxine, (Catherine Keener) who although is never elaborated upon professionally becomes essential to the plot. One day, the puppeteir finds a portal behind a filing cabinet in his office and crawls in only to be sucked into John Malkovich’s head–to experience what he does in every sense for 15 minutes.

After this experience, Craig approaches Maxine and tells her and they decide to start a tour service providing public access to Malkovich’s mind, for a fee of a few hundred dollars. Lotte takes a tour and decides she might be better off as a man. And other lines of plot weave in as the office boss is revealed to not only know about the passage but to have a specific, long-term use for it.

This film is infinitely complex in terms of its splicing apart of the human psyche. There are so many angles to explore it from that each time I watch it I feel I’m watching a different movie, depending on my mood. Spike Jonze displays genius in his choices of what stays and what goes in terms of character development. He had to choose wisely because what he is selling is semi-taboo psychological facts of life wrapped in fiction. Of course we can’t escape into someone’s mind through a tunnel behind a filing cabinet, yet we can find ourselves lost in the identity of a movie character for just a moment when our lives are a yawn or when we desperately need catharsis. In essence, what really draws us into this film are the facts of human desire, ambition, identity, sexuality that Jonze sets out on the table swiftly, without explanation and in a consistently comical way.

My appreciation of Cameron Diaz as an actress is fortified every time I see this film–it allows me to like her at all because usually she is pawned off for her legs or giggle or frantic, puppy-dog response to the foibles of life (at least try to get her to act!). This time she can’t possibly depend on those things. Indeed, this time she is a pitiful outfit of a woman who has a sexual identity crisis in the midst of a biological clock disaster manifest as her accumulation of a zoo’s worth of animals in her New York City cave of an apartment. She’s a mess. It’s positively refreshing.

Craig’s entrance into and transformation of Malkovich into a campy, unkempt puppetier is also delightfully disturbing and represents a truth we all know–you can have fame but you will still be you.

The most profound theme in the movie emerges with Maxine’s realization that she is indeed in love with Malkovich but only when a certain person takes over his mind. In essence, nobody wants to be Malkovich so much as have what he has, to be in his position. Nobody even wants to be with him so much as be near his position in society. The guy is prostituted over the course of 112 minutes and seems to vaporize along the end of the plot, so unimportant is his identity. And so unimportant are the identities of the other three main characters according to their own whims.

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