Being John Malkovitch (Review)

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer in a market that doesn’t even want to support his artwork. He is convinced by his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who is a mildly confused version of Doctor Dolittle that he ought to go get a job, at least until he finds steady work as a puppeteer. He does so and encounters Maxine (Catherine Keener). He finds himself uncontrollably drawn to Maxine, but she wants nothing to do with him. That is, until he finds a small door in their office building that leads into…John Malkovich’s head.

At first glance, this movie seems to belong squarely as an art house independent film, but here it is in the mainstream. Kaufman and Jonze have managed to create a film that more or less throws everything up in the air: psychology, personal and sexual identity, metaphysical assumptions common to most of Western society. There is plenty of whimsy to offer up such as offices on a 7 1/2th floor of an executive structure and the question of what the New Jersey turnpike really means in a metaphysical sense. There is also plenty to please the fans of the metaphysical or surreal while keeping enough farcical humor on hand to keep the film approachable for anyone who wants to sit down, munch popcorn and just enjoy some entertainment.

The actors turn in some very complex performances. John Cusack manages to turn a lecherous sociopath into a character that I felt a great deal of pity for. An unusually frumpy Cameron Diaz complete with hair that looks as though it was found in a curbside dumpster, plays his confused spouse perfectly. Keener also plays the cold-hearted bitch flawlessly. When one man is told he can be John Malkovich, he starts to recount an emotional tale of why he wants to be Malkovich, to the effect of “You see, I’m a very fat man. I’m very lonely and—” She cuts him off with, “Two hundred dollars, please.” Ouch.

Orson Bean plays the lecherous old madman excellently, lamenting his isolated life “high in my tower of indecipherable speech” and discussing the thighs of his “executive liaison” (Mary Kay Place) over carrot juice and providing some great laughs. And last but not least, Malkovich turns in the most varied performance of the film, and is a great sport for even accepting the role.

This film is one of the most original films I’ve seen. It is by turns hilarious, disturbing, provocative and moving. It also has a surprisingly unsettling ending.

The film made me think seriously about its metaphysical implications, particularly with regard to human experience – the philosophical school of phenomenology. For instance, the question of whether (assuming the existence of a soul) the soul is actually changed by exposure to different hormones or chemicals. Like many others, when I think of my “self” or my soul, I think in binaries of as male or female and a given sexual orientation. But if a heterosexual man’s consciousness is transplanted into the mind of a heterosexual woman, with the corresponding hormones playing upon his consciousness, would he be attracted to men, as Lotte is attracted to women in this film? Is the soul asexual or perhaps simply lustful, unencumbered by social constructions of gender and sexuality and not really careless about the expression of desire? Clearly, the largest concepts that were raised by the movie for myself were those of sexuality and identity of the self. The question that arises (in relation to this) is this: if a transplantation into another body does indeed change one’s soul or consciousness, how is it that Lotte becomes attracted to women when in Malkovich, and Craig remains obsessed with Maxine even in a female child’s body? All in all, it was an excellent film deserving of several more viewings and warranting further reflection.


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