Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen
I’m going to get this out of the way right now—I’m going to take a load of heat for saying that I don’t love Being John Malkovich. I don’t hate it and I respect the hell out of it, but I don’t love it. It’s weird, and I like weird. It’s dark, and I like dark. But it’s also kind of hateful. The only really sympathetic character in the film is Malkovich himself, and even then, he’s only sympathetic for a short period of time. Yes, there are great scenes here, bits of cinematic genius that will continue to be referenced in years to come. But I just don’t love it. I mean, I almost wish this had been my first viewing of the film because at times, I just sort of wanted it done because I knew what was coming.
In a lot of ways, I dread movies like this one more than ones I outright hate. At least with a film I dislike intensely, I can muster up some good emotion and a few good quotes in the review. With Being John Malkovich, I’m more or less waiting for the end because I’m not specifically enjoying myself and I don’t have the sweet, sweet balm of righteous anger. It’s two hours of me looking at the screen like my dog does when it hears a noise it doesn’t recognize.
Anyway, this one doesn’t sum up easily, so I’ll do my best. Craig Schwartz (John Cusak) is a puppeteer who frequently gets beat up on the streets of New York for puppet shows that are inappropriate for children (because he’s an artist). His wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) works in a pet store and takes in a huge number of animals, many of which have issues. Desperate for money, Craig takes a job at a filing company working for Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) and his insane receptionist Floris (Mary Kay Place). Here he falls passionately in lust with Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), which is completely unrequited. His company and Maxine’s are located on floor 7½ of their building; it has extremely low ceilings and is accessible only by jamming the elevator midway between the 7th and 8th floors.
One day while filing, a file slips behind a cabinet. Behind this cabinet, Craig discovers a door that leads into the head of John Malkovich, allowing him to see the world through Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before he is spit out bodily on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. If you haven’t seen this film, the previous sentence sounds a hell of a lot like gibberish. If you have seen it, you know precisely what I’m talking about.
What follows is surely filmdom’s most bizarre love triangle—Craig is madly in lust with Maxine, who finds herself attracted to Malkovich, but only when Lotte is inside him. Maxine and Craig start a business allowing ordinary people to, well, be John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time. Craig, though, thanks to his puppeteering skills, soon masters Malkovich’s body, allowing him to stay inside as long as he wants and giving him control over Malkovich’s actions.
Eventually, it is revealed to us that this portal allows for a sort of immortality. Someone who accesses the portal on the subject’s 44th birthday essentially becomes that subject, and the subject’s child becomes the next portal. Dr. Lester knows this, because he did the same thing with Dr. Lester. But with Craig inside and unwilling to leave, there is a battle over the life and soul of John Malkovich and for its ultimate control.
Yeah, I know—it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, although it all works within the context of the film.
There are moments of sheer brilliance in Being John Malkovich. When Malkovich enters his own portal and winds up in a world populated by himself where every spoken word is “Malkovich”…I really have no words. It’s a couple of minutes of near perfection.
My problem with Being John Malkovich is that there’s really no one to latch onto as a sympathetic character. Craig is pretty awful as a person, going so far as to lock up Lotte in a cage at one point just so he can have a little alone time with Maxine. Maxine is concerned only for herself, declaring love for Lotte that she gives up the moment she realizes Craig can actually control Malkovich’s body. For her part, Lotte is flighty and capricious, instantly willing to resort to violence when she can’t get what she wants. Only Malkovich is sympathetic, and even then only when he’s himself. When he’s being controlled by Craig, he’s as much of a creep as Craig ever was.
And that’s what I get from this film. I love the ideas in it, even love the performances. I enjoy the hell out of Orson Bean’s performance as an incredibly creepy, dirty old man. I love that Cameron Diaz took an extremely non-glamorous part. But I dislike the characters intensely, which prevents me from really loving this film the way I want to.
Why to watch Being John Malkovich: It’s the weirdest plot you’ll ever encounter.
Why not to watch: Sympathy is hard to come by.