Being John Malkovich is the most comically strange and original movie of the year. Like most one-of-a-kind films, it exists almost entirely within its own wiggy frame of reference, and yet, by touching on so many aesthetic conundrums, it’s the art film of the moment – or the moment just ahead. Dazzlingly singular movies aren’t often this much fun. The director Spike Jonze and his screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, both making their feature-film debuts, transform their notions about the nature of celebrity and time and inspiration into a kind of metaphysical vaudeville. Imagine Pynchon or Nabokov or Borges with a neo-slacker’s absurdist spin, and add to it something far more mysterious, a feeling for the crawl spaces in our pop-cult consciousness. There’s more going on inside this movie’s brainpan than in many a pretentious European import, or stateside equivalent, and yet, in the best American tradition, it wears its intelligence lightly. Only after the film is over do you realize the passion and melancholy that also went into it. Being John Malkovich may turn out to be the latest word in cutting-edge hip, but it’s just about the least cynical hip movie ever made.
The filmmakers at once parody and dignify the earnestness of the self-conscious artist, personified here by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a dejected puppeteer who believes himself unemployable because he “raises issues.” He does, but that’s probably not the only reason he’s unemployable: He’s also one ornery prima donna. He creates a mini-ballet called Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, featuring a puppet with a painted-on face identical to Craig’s, which, incidentally, resembles Jesus’; he stages on the streets of New York a lyrical marionette play featuring Abélard and Héloïse, concluding with the two medieval lovebirds, separated by a cell wall, simulating sex. (A father, watching his young daughter gape at the sight, punches out the puppetmaster.) Craig has the ratty, blasted look of a street person who could be bonkers or some kind of visionary (or both). His idea of existence is simple and self-pitying: I think, I feel, I suffer. He’s a poseur but also highly gifted. Enthralled by his own expressiveness, he’s the master of his play-act domain.
Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), works in a pet store and crowds their cramped apartment with its denizens, including a brash parrot and a chimp named Elijah. (She’s been taking him to a chimp shrink.) Wearing no makeup, frumpily dressed, with wide, blank eyes and big frizzed hair, Lotte has a vaguely tropical, gone-native look. Just as Craig is more intensely connected to his puppet world than to the people world, Lotte is emotionally of-a-piece with her pets: She brings Elijah into their bed for consoling.
Up until this point we’ve been witnessing a fractured romantic farce in which both romancers are essentially wooing themselves. But Jonze and Kaufman move way beyond the formalities of genre; the film progresses in a series of riffs and spirals, each one wilder than the one before, and yet it’s all highly controlled, deadpan. The 29-year-old Jonze (whose real name is Adam Spiegel, of the Spiegel catalogue family) is perhaps the best of the music-video and TV-commercial directors, but he doesn’t go in for a lot of whiz-bang gyrations here; he understands how the film’s transcendent strangeness is best served straight up.
What follows is a daisy chain of loopy linkages. Here’s a taste: Craig takes a job as an entry-level filing clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, with ceilings so low that employees walk beneath them crookbacked. Craig’s boss (Orson Bean) is a hale-looking 105-year-old who survives on carrot juice; Maxine (Catherine Keener), a snappish fellow employee, draws out Craig’s lust and throws it back at him, unrequited. Then Craig discovers behind a filing cabinet in his office a portal which leads him, with a whoosh through its oozy dampness, straight into the head of John Malkovich; for precisely fifteen minutes he sees the world through the unsuspecting actor’s eyes – reading his Wall Street Journal, munching his morning toast – before dropping rudely down to earth in a ditch beside the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig and Maxine seize the entrepreneurial moment: After hours they charge people $200 to “be” John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. Lotte gets in on the ride, too – she finds herself inside Malkovich as he makes love to Maxine, and falls for her, and she for Lotte, but only when Lotte is looking back at her through the eyes of the actor. All of which brings on Craig’s jealousy; he decides he must inhabit Malkovich and dominate him the way he does his puppets.
The grandest joke in the movie is that, for the people who inhabit Malkovich, it’s enough that they are inside him: It makes no difference if he’s simply picking at some Chinese takeout from the fridge or ordering up bathroom mats from a catalogue. Celebrity is all – even if, as with most of the people who are in for the ride, the specifics of the celebrity are fuzzy. (No one seems to know the exact nature of Malkovich’s credits). The vicariousness of life lived through another – which is the hallmark of our celebrity-obsessed age – is here rendered literally; even mundaneness is made to seem special when viewed through the eyes of a star. The famous are our portals into an enhanced nothingness, and we gladly go for it.
John Malkovich is the ideal actor to play, well, John Malkovich. His air of wayward distraction is aggressively creepy; his big, baldish head here has a puppetlike blockiness, and he looks like he might indeed have another pair of eyes inside his own. In fact, every actor in this movie, and they are all marvelous, appears to be inhabited. They contain a multitude of selves, like those Russian dolls-within-dolls. And yet, this flurry of inner identities – transgendered, transfixed, evanescent – feels right; it’s how we see ourselves now, not as a single character but as a gallery of characters butting up against each other.
And the gallery is always up for grabs. When Malkovich, upon discovering what’s going on, yells at Craig to seal up the portal because It’s my head, Craig responds, It’s my livelihood. Here, in a nutshell, is the postmodern condition: You no longer own your mind. And yet the movie doesn’t stop there, for what is acting – what is all art – but a form of vicarious byplay? The audience sees through the eyes of the artist and, whether it be for fifteen minutes or fifteen hours, co-opts the artist’s way of seeing. The metaphor of the movie ultimately collapses in upon itself: Jonze and Kaufman condemn the way the culture invades our heads, but their film is itself a portal into their own minds. For the artist, for the audience, there is no way to escape being a voyeur.
I hope I’m not making Being John Malkovich out to be some kind of philosophy seminar in camouflage, but, like Craig, it “raises issues,” and I don’t see why they should be downplayed just because the movie is such an abracadabra joyride. It couldn’t come at a better time, both in terms of the Zeitgeist it’s lancing and in terms of the film industry, which needs all the replenishing it can get. It’s the most impressive debut movie I’ve seen in years.