Sunday, December 30, 2012

World on a String

Film: Being John Malkovich
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.


  1. Although it didn't bother me quite as much as you, I do agree that the biggest flaw in this film is its cruelty. And I like this movie quite a lot, but it is a bit soulless. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it's a totally awesome and absolutely fascinating idea for a film that can't quite put together a perfect product. A damn near awesome product, but not perfect.

  2. It's funny. I agree with everything you said about the characters being unlikable, and I almost without fail dislike movies with dislikable characters (or at least like the movies less), yet for a reason I cannot explain, I like this movie a lot. I also like weird and dark, and maybe this movie is just so weird and dark that it overrides my usual reaction to unlikable characters.

    By the way, I completely agree with the scene where Malkovich enters his own portal. I remember thinking while I was watching this movie, "John Malkovich has some real balls to have agreed to do this movie." I even laughed at his cameo in Adaptation.

    In reading your description of the plot and comments about how it must sound weird, I have a true story to share. A person I worked with saw this film and said that she didn't find it believable, so she didn't like it. When I quizzed her further about this, it turned out to have nothing to do with portals, Jersey turnpikes, floor 7 1/2, controlling people's bodies, or even Malkovich and Charlie Sheen being the best of friends; she didn't have a problem with any of that. She found the movie unbelievable because she just couldn't buy John Cusack and Cameron Diaz as a couple. Seriously.

  3. My beef with this movie was that the scene in which Malkovich enters his own head happens in the middle of the story, when it would have served better as part of the film's denouement. As a visual and metaphysical punchline, it would have had more impact at the end.

  4. I don't care for this movie either. In fact, every film Kaufman has written ends up being off-putting to me. I don't like the way he builds his film worlds or his sense of humor or his characters or really anything he pens. He comes up with imaginative ideas, but he always finds a way to make me vehemently dislike those ideas and his screenplays.

    I think, like you, one of my biggest problems is that I consistently don't like any of his characters, nor do I find them particularly interesting to watch.

  5. I haven't watched this one yet and I think you did a great job describing the movie. I agree with JBE about Kaufman, but I am really wanting to catch this some time.

  6. Wow. Clean the house for a day, and look at all the comments!

    @Sio--I like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern more than this one because the dialogue is so damn good. But yeah, I see "soulless."

    @Chip--I generally have a real issue in films where there are no characters for me to latch onto. There are probably exceptions, although I can't think of one. As for the coworker...I have no words. That actually hurts. As for Malkovich, it gives me a new level of respect for him to be able to poke this much fun at himself this publicly.

    @Kevin--It really is the film's highpoint, I'll grant you that. I'm not sure how it would work in the story at the end, though.

    @James--I agree with not liking his characters, although I do find some of them interesting. Not in this one, though.

    @Robert--It's worth seeing, but I can't guarantee you'll enjoy it.

  7. I am in line with Chip here. I really enjoyed this one even though every character are mean and dislikeable. They are small people with common enough faults who get a powerfull tool in their hands. That does not make them better people but just enhance their faults. Also you cannot really escape who you are, no matter how much you try to become somebody else. In this sense quite literally. And this fable is told with such imagination.
    I can see and respect your problem with no likeable characters, I usually have the same problem. In this case however it does not stop me from loving "Being John Malkovitch".
    But why John Malkovitch???

    1. I don't know why Malkovich, but I love that they used him--he's perfect for this film. He's just goofy enough to make it work, but not Christopher Walken weird.

  8. I got Being John Malkovich from the local library and watched it tonight and I liked it so much that I went to my IMDB list of my favorite movies, year by year, to see if it had a chance to be the winner for that year. But my 1999 choice is Office Space, and that's not an easy film to beat.

    Still, I loved Being John Malkovich for being like a long weird episode of The Twilight Zone, or like a Bunuel film if Bunuel had lived another 30 years, and at the same time, for being its own thing without owing much to any other movie.

    Malkovich and Diaz and Charlie Sheen were all wonderful, and it TRIPPED ME OUT when I realized Lester was Orson Bean!

    The real standout was Catherine Keener. I know who she is but I can't think of a single specific movie where I've seen her. But she nailed Maxine! So sexy! Keener is such a good actress that she played a really sexy woman without really being particularly sexy herself. (Except for this movie.) Maybe I shouldn't say that. Maybe I just don't know her work that well.

    I can't believe it's taken me this long to see Being John Malkovich. I even had it on VHS for a while because my brother got it for me for Christmas. But I didn't get around to it for a while and my ancient VCR quit working and I converted to DVD without ever seeing it.

    1. Keener is magnificent in Capote, just as a place to start.

      I really want to like this movie a lot and I just really don't. I find all of the characters so unpleasant that I hate spending time in this world. Everyone is an asshole, and so it's not much fun being there.