The intricately funny Being John Malkovich, a funhouse-mirror fable of perception and experience, works on our senses more effectively than any movie in years. When our protagonist, hangdog puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), and his dishevelled, animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) are talking in their kitchen, it feels like an authentic cramped kitchen in a low-rent apartment — you can almost smell the lingering odor of cheap spaghetti sauce, the smothering essence of animal fur (the Schwartzes own a dog, a chimp, and a parrot). At the hunchbacked offices where Craig works as a file clerk — on the 7 1/2th floor, where the ceilings are about five feet high — you feel the 9-to-5 oppressiveness physically literalized. It’s the inverse of those fantastic high ceilings in Brazil, which made the worker drones seem small; here, the offices reduce the actual stature of the workers, and you imagine the neckaches and backaches you’d suffer after an eight-hour day.
This is the world set up for us by writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, both making their feature debuts (Jonze had directed many MTV videos and appeared as the cheerful redneck soldier in Three Kings). The movie proper begins in Craig’s “workshop” — a tiny space where he makes and practices with his puppets — and the whole movie is a workshop. Throughout, we’re made conscious of the fact that we’re watching a puppet show, with actors saying lines, and yet we’re drawn into their suffering and triumphs, as we are when we glimpse Craig’s puppetry. (An indication of the filmmakers’ generosity of spirit: Craig is presented as fairly self-absorbed and faintly pompous, but his work itself is quite accomplished.) Kaufman and Jonze push artifice far but not too far: The weirdness is always rooted in drab reality, the outsize emotional shifts always defined by plausible motives. The filmmakers are sly enough to know why we go to movies — to be someone else, passively, vicariously, feel what they feel — and the movie itself proceeds from that premise.
And perhaps the largest irony in a movie full of them is that probably no moviegoer in history has ever sought to feel what John Malkovich feels — the cold sardonic hipster, the mystery man, the moral blank who keeps you at arm’s length and laughs at you for watching him. Malkovich makes it impossible for us to enjoy him except at a considerable distance. So of course he’s the perfect marionette for this mad puppet show. Behind a heavy file cabinet at work, Craig discovers a portal into the head, the consciousness, of John Malkovich. The square hole suggests a TV screen or movie screen; the portal is long and, well, womblike. Craig crawls through the wet and muddy portal and is violently sucked into Malkovich’s everyday experiences for 15 minutes, after which he is just as violently deposited — from the sky — onto the ground outside the New Jersey Turnpike. (The Malkovich ride removes you mentally and then physically.) After a while, Maxine (Catherine Keener), an icy co-worker with whom Craig is smitten, proposes that she and Craig start JM Inc. — charging people $200 for 15 minutes inside Malkovich. He becomes a “vessel” — an escape pod from the mundanity of life. Never mind that most of his experiences, when experienced by JM Inc.’s clientele, are just as mundane.
In recent years, I’d grown a bit impatient with Malkovich’s imperiously noncommittal performances. He seemed to use the same fey, dead voice in every role; what was new and refreshing in The Killing Fields and Empire of the Sun had grown familiar by the time of Con Air and Portrait of a Lady, where Malkovich was merely using his cerebral creepiness to cash easy checks playing bored, jaded villains. I’d just about counted him out as an interesting actor when he surprised me with his playful turn as Teddy KGB, the gambler with an accent as thick as a brick, in Rounders. Perhaps Malkovich had been bored in all those films, and his boredom showed — perhaps he needs more freaky parts like Teddy KGB and, well, John Malkovich. His performance here thoroughly humanizes him, opens him up to us and to himself, especially when he’s occupied by other people and we get to see his spasms, his balking at a controlling puppetmaster consciousness, and finally his complete subjugation to someone else’s personality. His childlike grin late in the movie when he announces to an unimpressed audience, “I’m John Malkovich,” makes up for all the cool one-handed performances he gave throughout the ’90s.
Being John Malkovich will benefit greatly from repeat viewings and fervent post-viewing deconstruction. Kaufman’s screenplay, chaotic and messy at first glance, is actually drum-tight in its themes and metaphors. It’s right on the cutting edge of gender discussion, as seen in a lovemaking sequence that is perhaps the oddest (and the funniest and most touching) menage a trois ever put on film. Is Malkovich the only vessel? Can any of us, like him, be vessels without knowing it? To some extent, we all are; certainly all creative people are both vessels and puppeteers. The movie is about — among approximately 79 other things — the creative exchange. When telling a story, we inhabit the characters and see through their eyes, but they also inhabit us; and those who are told the story also project themselves into the characters and absorb them into themselves at the same time. BJM triggers complex connections and then skips lightly to the next thing; a movie that’s outwardly “thoughtful” could never be this thought-provoking. Like the Malkovich ride itself, it’s a fast and fun trip; only afterward do you appreciate where it took you.
Some will say BJM goes on a bit past its natural conclusion. Kaufman throws structure to the wind; an hour and a half into the movie, he isn’t shy about jumping ahead seven years or seven months. Our internal clocks tell us the movie should be wrapping up, tying up its loose ends; instead it expands and gets more tangled. I like that; the movie works overtime, it plays its loony self out right to the finish and beyond, when most movies would be grabbing a smoke and heading for the climactic shootout or tearful confrontation scene. (The climax of this movie, by the way, has both. And much more.) Craig’s quirky boss, the 105-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean in an irrepressible comic turn), is nearly forgotten and then emerges in the third act as a major player, acting as journeyman and metaphorical conscience for the embattled Craig. Transgenderism is explored, toyed with and cast aside — it’s just another way of escaping an old self. BJM takes on a cosmic and rather serious tone in the second half while losing little of its satirical bite. Our senses are no longer engaged; it’s a mind trip now. Craig begins to recede, wondering to himself, “What have I become? My wife is in a cage with a chimp.” The inner and outer universes are on a collision course, and there is much talk about “ripe vessels” and eternal life. Women grapple in the primal mud and rain outside the New Jersey Turnpike. The movie finishes with a series of dazzlingly evocative yet simple images that express both freedom and confinement, progression and submersion.
Being John Malkovich is a triumph for Spike Jonze, who has distinguished himself as a rock-video artist mainly by not dealing in the same tired flash-flash, Cuisinart gimmickry we associate with MTV (and many of its graduates, like Alex Proyas). His contribution here, it could be said, is to display little or no style at all; he serves Charlie Kaufman’s ideas, knowing they’re freaky enough without cinematic embellishment. A young director who knows how to stay out of the way of a fine script is, perhaps, more valuable — and more durable in the long run — than a young director who sees a script as a series of hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director whizbang angles and smash-cuts. Yet there’s a deadpan fizz of surrealism around everything he does here. We’re seeing through the eyes of a filmmaker with an amiably skewed take on things, along with a compassion that grants each character his or her own awkward dignity and flaws. And he’s working with a script that allows him access to emotional complications and absurdities that no conventional movie could touch. Being John Malkovich reminds us why movies like this need to be made; at its best, it reminds us that the medium hasn’t lost its magic yet. There are still new stories to tell, new portals to explore, new vessels to inhabit.