Published October 1, 1999
Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze is a hilariously funny movie which also has some interesting things to say about art and artistry and love and sex and would probably even have interesting things to say about celebrity, too, if it were still possible to say anything interesting on the subject. As for art it seems to take literally the artist’s task of imagination, which is to convey to us the sense of “being inside someone else’s skin, feeling what they feel” as the puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) puts it. Schwartz himself does exactly this when he discovers a “portal” and secret passage leading off floor 7½ in the building where he works that ends, for no particular reason, somewhere inside the head of the actor, John Malkovich, who plays himself.
This conceit, of a kind of unexplained flaw in the space-time continuum which allows not just social but metaphysical boundaries to be crossed (or “transgressed” as the postmodernists say), is a bit like that of Groundhog Day and is similarly used for both comic and serious purposes. “Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this is?” says a wondering Craig, alive to all sorts of possibilities. Unlike Groundhog Day, however, Being John Malkovich is something of an allegory. “Getting inside someone’s head” is a common expression among actors and writers and perhaps also puppeteers for the task of assuming alternative identities. And in a deeper, philosophical sense it could be argued that insofar as we know anything outside ourselves, we know it by getting inside other people’s heads. Reading a book or even listening to someone else talk requires us to slip the bonds of self in order to share in someone else’s experience.
By showing us people who suddenly discover that they can literally get inside someone else’s head, Kaufman and Jonze also cause us to ponder the question of what are legitimate and illegitimate uses of the imagination. For soon Craig and his workmate and accomplice, the beautiful but unobtainable Maxine (Catherine Keener), are selling tickets to mere voyeurs, people who want to experience life as a celebrity for fifteen minutes—before they are inexplicably expelled and deposited on the hard shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. John Malkovich himself, alerted to something strange going on, turns up and takes the ride inside his own head—with results that make perfect sense in terms of the crazy logic of this movie.
But the lives of Maxine and Craig and his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), are transformed by the experience. Lotte decides she was meant to be a man and determines to ask her allergist (“I feel comfortable with him”) to perform “sexual reassignment surgery.” But Maxine, whom both she and Craig have fallen in love with, doesn’t want Lotte as a man. She loves her but, “Only as John,” with whom she makes love while Lotte is inside his head. Craig, though spurned by Maxine, now considers himself his wife’s rival in love, so he kidnaps her and locks her in a cage with her pet chimpanzee (she has lots of pets) while he takes her place in the weird threesome with Maxine and Malkovich. Soon he contrives a way (how is not spelled out) to avoid the drop onto the New Jersey Turnpike and to occupy Malkovich’s body permanently.
In this new identity he is able not only to marry Maxine but also to use Malkovich’s celebrity to enjoy the success as a puppeteer that has hitherto eluded him. The former Malkovich seems completely possessed by Craig and Craig’s desires, both artistic and sexual.Unknown to him, however, the mysterious Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) has long been planning a Malkovich takeover of his own. Lester, like Craig, is a user of other people but on a more long-term plan. Like a flea hopping from one dog to the next, he inhabits a new body in each generation as a way of cheating death. Yet he does not come off as an evil character, since he invites crowds of friends, including Lotte, to come with him into his new accommodation, so that the “real” Malkovich presumably becomes just one among the many people who inhabit his body.
In fact, one can imagine that an actor, someone who more than most of us is required to keep a certain number of spare personalities within easy reach, would find it very useful to have lots of different people inside himself. He might be all but indistinguishable from the actual Malkovich. But Craig’s attempt at total possession doesn’t work. “Craig’s dance of despair and disillusion,” which he developed to show off his string-pulling skills and which he somehow manages to perform from within John Malkovich (who reveals an impressively acrobatic side of himself) becomes his own final statement when Lester finds in his love for Maxine a way to turf him out of Malkovich’s body. There is an odd sense of the rightness of the conclusion. Impressive as Malkovich is as a puppeteer, we always knew that he was meant to be an actor.