Eat Your Vegetables: "Being John Malkovich," Being Puppets Without Strings

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze; 1999) deserves a second look (or a first look, for that matter), especially after the Criterion Collection released a deluxe edition of the film on Tuesday (you can also stream it via Netflix).  The film is notable for three reasons: it introduced indie-darlings Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman to a larger audience, it helped reinvigorate the at-the-time moribund career of Tiger-blood proponent Charlie Sheen, and last, but not least, it confirmed America’s suspicion that John Malkovich was indeed an abnormal individual.

Like the brain of its titular star, the film is labyrinthine. It combines the plots that could have each made their own indie dramas. Out-of-work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), his wife, the animal-loving Lottie (Cameron Diaz), love the same woman. That’s one movie. In another, Schwartz schemes in a demented, Horatio-Alger way to achieve national stardom as a puppeteer. In yet another plot, the one referred to in the title, Schwartz discovers a portal into the brain of vaguely famous actor John Malkovich. The portal allows the occupant to experience reality from inside Malkovich’s mind for 15 minutes before he or she is spewed out onto the New Jersey Turnpike.

Comic hijinks ensue.

Well, not really. The film has plenty of funny lines, but its claustrophobic mise-en-scene, minor-keyed score, and repetition of a performance art piece called “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” aren’t really feel-good fare. It’s not a fun truth that we all want to be somebody else. In fact, the film’s black joke is even more depressing: given the opportunity, we would simply morph that new person into us.

One of the funniest visual motifs in the film is how Craig and Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) both make Malkovich over in their image. Cusack and Diaz are dirty, mussed up versions of their normal Hollywood selves. You really hate Craig at the film’s end, and Lottie contradictorily wants to be someone else (I’m sure C. Diaz fans who watched the film hoped it was someone with a hair brush and an incinerator for her character’s mom jeans).

Maxine (Catherine Keener), the woman Craig and Lottie both love, is the film’s anomaly. Preternaturally confident, Maxine seems to be the only person in Kaufman and Jonze’s universe that is comfortable in her own skin (cue the Dove commercial). Fittingly, the movie makes her into a mother. Her act is that she doesn’t act. With anyone. She’s all surface.

That isn’t to say she’s necessarily shallow. Craig and Lottie have depths. One of the film’s points is that usually those depths conceal things that are worth burying.

Kaufman, the screenwriter, conspicuously avoids the supernatural ramifications of of the film. Even when something metaphysical comes up in conversation, it’s as a joke from Sheen concerning the possibility of lesbian witches. Even Craig, the most philosophical of the characters, never asks whether the portal confirms or denies the existence of God. Instead, he goes on about the soul and identity. One of the talking heads in the film’s faux-doc on Malkovich likens the puppetmaster’s power to the divine. Schwartz himself performs scenes from Abelard and Heloise concerning a monk and nun who harbor deep passion for one another. The characters are superficially deep. They want to know who they “really” are, but their conception of identity is chiefly motivated by sex.

If none of the characters take the time to contemplate how they’re ALWAYS performing their identity (whether they’re inside Malkovich or not), none of them realize how they have denigrated their creative passions to cheap power plays and lustful flings. “It’s not about playing with puppets,” Craig (controlling Malkovich) tells Maxine. “You’re right,” Maxine responds enthusiastically. “It’s about playing with people.” A self-conscious film like this one should prompt someone to ask: who holds the strings? It’s telling that no one ever does.

About Jonathan Sircy

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