Being John Malkovich, now available as a two-DVD edition by The Criterion Collection, is one of the most frustratingly inventive films ever made. For its first two-thirds, it’s fascinating and funny. The idea of a portal that leads someone literally inside the head of another person, seeing the world through their eyes for 15 minutes, could have been treated as a hackneyed high concept comedy. But writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (both making their feature film debuts) created something more audacious and lasting. The film explores some very interesting concepts, including the nature of identity, invasion of privacy, and the desire to become someone else.
Unfortunately, the whole thing collapses–at least partially–in its third act as it introduces complicated, confusing, pseudo-scientific explanations to justify the existence of such a portal. I could try to explain it here, but if you haven’t seen the movie it won’t make a lick of sense. I’ve seen the film several times since its release in 1999, and I still have difficulty understanding it. The rational part of my brain wants it all to gel into a cohesive whole, but maybe that wasn’t the point. As a very literal depiction of a “head trip,” Being John Malkovich is probably most fully enjoyed as a brilliantly conceived absurdist piece.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a self-absorbed puppeteer, staging erotically-charged marionette shows on street corners for anyone who’ll stop and watch. His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) has turned their home into a kind of menagerie. She longs for a child, but since that’s not likely to happen with Craig, she obsesses over a host of pet animals (including a chimpanzee named Elijah). Though timid by nature, Lotte finally backs Craig into a corner, forcing him to find a day job to help support the household. Craig becomes an office drone, filing papers for a company called LesterCorp.
To reveal the peculiarities of Craig’s workplace environment would be dirty pool for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. Suffice it to say that LesterCorp employees can’t stand up straight while working and their boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), is a centenarian letch who believes he has a speech impediment (though his diction is perfect). Anyone who thinks the forced hilarity of NBC’s The Office represents an undesirable place of employment needs to get a taste of LesterCorp. An entire movie could’ve easily been built around Dr. Lester (who “pisses orange” from all the carrot juice he consumes) and his secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place). Then there’s the enigmatic office vamp, Maxine (Catherine Keener, Oscar-nominated for her work here).
Maxine is the first person Craig tells after he discovers a mysterious opening in an office wall, hidden behind a file cabinet. Upon entrance, this portal sucks the individual into the consciousness of the actor John Malkovich (fearlessly playing a fictionalized, and none too flattering, version of himself). Craig is bewildered by this experience, which ends after 15 minutes with an unceremonious ejection into a ditch near the New Jersey Turnpike (a suitably arbitrary location). Upon hearing this, Maxine immediately devises a way to capitalize on the portal. She and Craig take out an ad in the paper, selling tickets to experience the portal for $200 per person. It becomes an immediate hit, but is derailed when Malkovich himself becomes aware of the enterprise.
To say the story takes some unpredictable turns at this point would be a considerable understatement. Plot points during the film’s concluding act include a group of kindly senior citizens seeking immortality, the act of puppeteering being taken to an unprecedented level (with a human being becoming the puppet), the horror of existing in an Earth-bound state of purgatory, and Charlie Sheen (cameoing as Malkovich’s best friend). It really is a one-of-a-kind film. If the dots don’t quite connect perfectly in the end, you’ll have an agonizingly fun time trying to make them do so. And the cast is extraordinary, especially Malkovich, who begins the film as a subtly creepy, but strangely dull and boring, presence, ultimately tipping into full-blown derangement as he loses control of his own personality. Cusack shines as well, expertly conveying the supremely selfish and delusional nature of Craig Schwartz.
Criterion’s DVD packs in quite a few extras, mostly contained on the second disc. The only feature on the first disc is a scene-specific commentary by director Michel Gondry (who was not involved with Being John Malkovich, but is referred to as Spike Jonze’s “friend and competitor”). It’s an unusual move, having a filmmaker offer his own observations on someone else’s movie. Some of it is tongue-in-cheek and very funny (try not to laugh as Gondry contemplates whether the portal looks more like “a vagina” or “an asshole”), though the director is openly honest about being deeply jealous of the movie. At one point, Gondry actually calls Jonze on the phone during the commentary to tell him he is “running out of shit to say.” But he’s actually not. The commentary just gets funnier as Gondry grills Jonze over the phone about whether he was “more inclined to see Malkovich’s balls or Catherine Keener’s pussy” while shooting a bedroom scene.
The second disc has a very entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary, “All Noncombatants Please Clear the Set,” that runs about 35 minutes. Even better is a 30 minute interview from 2011 with John Malkovich. The actor, interviewed by John Hodgman, offers his thoughtful, reflective impressions of the movie more than a decade after its release. Any fan who always wondered what Malkovich thought of the movie (and the way it depicts him) will be pleased. “Spike’s Photos” is more than just a still gallery. It’s a 15 minute featurette with Jonze offering further anecdotes about the making of the film, while displaying on-set photos.
A few short pieces are carried over from the original, non-Criterion DVD release. These include the short films-within-a-film, “American Arts & Culture Presents John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” and “7 1/2 Floor Orientation.” Phil Huber, the man who performed the complex marionette puppeteering for the film, is featured in “An Intimate Portrait of the Art of Puppeteering.” As usual with Criterion releases, the booklet itself is a valuable feature too. This one includes a laugh-out-loud funny transcription of a conversation between pop culture critic Perkus Tooth and Spike Jonze. The Criterion Collection’s excellent edition of Being John Malkovich is also available on Blu-ray.