Twenty years since it befuddled and enraptured audiences with progressive gender themes and identity swapping Being John Malkovich is ripe for re-discovery. Charlie Kaufman’s script arrived at a time when Hollywood was yet to experience the psychic trauma of September 11th and was still making bank from capitalising on multiple sequels whilst someone like Quentin Tarantino was considered a genius instead of an expert curator of the past.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a struggling puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich which he then exploits at the suggestion of his co-worker Maxine, portrayed by the excellent Catherine Keener. The duo create an opportunity for the confused and curious to experience another persona… for fifteen minutes after which they are jettisoned out of Malkovich onto the New Jersey Turnpike.
This unique business opportunity is derailed by Craig’s girlfriend Lotte (Cameron Diaz) who falls for Maxine unbeknownst to Craig. Maxine explains that their love-making is heightened if Lotte inhabits Malkovich whilst doing so. The entire premise hinges on Malkovich himself who clearly revels in the experiment and opportunity to lampoon the more pretentious aspects of his celebrity. Moreover he is tasked with playing a sort of possessed version of himself as he fights for control of Malkovich in the second act.
It is apparent that this amplified and exaggerated version is the one which he is comfortable ridiculing and in some ways is a creation in its own right. It should be noted that the trend of celebrities playing themselves had not yet occurred but Being John Malkovich is an outlier in which the celeb is not merely laughing at themselves but creating a parallel version of themselves distinct from reality. His performance presents a possible Malkovich if certain character traits were heightened and others reduced.
Spike Jonze direction is fun and involving with the portal into Malkovich rendered as another orifice into the body and the subsequent dumping onto the turnpike as abrupt and comedic as you would expect. Jonze also gained plaudits for convincing Cameron Diaz to adopt the dowdy and drab persona of Lotte with frizzy wig and chunky jumper.
There are very few high-concept films that can bear scrutiny two decades hence but Being John Malkovich succeeds by presenting potentially alienating and complex themes into an accessible screenplay. This format was not always successful for Kaufman as Human Nature and Synecdoche, New York both suffered from overly complex ideas and the absence of Jonze’s ability to transfer Kaufman’s ideas onto screen.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 12 Aug 2019