Being John Malkovich (1999)

One of the oddest films to come out of America in recent years, this is reminiscent of Adam Rifkin's bizarre early work The Dark Backward – but far easier to get on with. The first reel is merely eccentric as slobbish puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), beaten up in the street for performing Abelard and Heloise, takes a job as a file clerk with the odd Dr Lester (Orson Bean), who claims to be 105 years old and has offices on the 7 ½th floor of a Manhattan building, allegedly constructed as a place where dwarves would not feel out of place but now home to firms who appreciate the 'low overhead' and have full-sized employees bent over scuttling around. Craig is attracted to smart but cruel co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who agrees to meet him for a drink but calls for the check the instant he tells her what he really does, but is married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz, frumped-up), who works in a pet store and has filled their apartment with neurotic or injured animals. Then, a file falls behind a cabinet and Craig discovers a muddy tunnel in the wall which leads directly to the head of John Malkovich. Sliding into the tunnel gives the slidee fifteen minutes as a passenger in Malkovich's life then dumps them out of thin air onto the Jersey turnpike. This fantastical turn leads to ever-wilder twists as Craig and Maxine begin a business selling slices of Malkovich's life to sad people, and then a unique romantic tangle evolves as Maxine falls in love with Lotte, not as herself but inside John Malkovich, which makes a jealous Craig lock Lotte in a cage with a chimp - whose childhood trauma about the capture of his family inhibits his chances of untying his benefactress - and slip into Malkovich, while pretending to be Lotte, thus finally seducing the object of his desires.

Malkovich, who seeks advice from a hilariously blank Charlie Sheen (who is intrigued by 'this hot lesbian witch thing'), loses his own life when Craig uses his puppeteering skills to take over entirely and divert the actor's career to string-manipulation. He marries the pregnant Maxine and, in a wonderful docu-montage, becomes a superstar puppeteer, but the portal's real owner, Dr Lester, has been planning to move bodies (as he has done before) to take over as Malkovich, with a group of his elderly friends in the skull for company. The chaotic last reel involves a chase through Malkovich's sub-conscious, full of awful moments from his childhood and adolescence, and yet more body-shifting as Craig ends up in the next host body, the daughter sired by Lotte / Malkovich and Maxine, while Malkovich and a combed-over Sheen plan on moving on forever.

This is a rare film that plays to an audience despite its lack of obviously appealing characters: an untidily long-haired Cusack is a glum, rather mean-spirited protagonist, while the women in his lives - cast as if the actresses had exchanged their usual roles - are self-absorbed and unhelpful and Malkovich himself contributes a remarkable exercise in sustained revolutionary self-criticism as 'John Horatio Malkovich', a smug and lonely man turned into a puppet, who goes through several amazing sequences as he replicates the Dance of Despair Craig has choreographed for a puppet or goes through the tunnel himself and is trapped briefly in a world where everyone is John Malkovich. Most of the work is in the script by Charlie Kaufman, which seems to have set out all the major weirdness, but director Spike Jonze carries it all off wonderfully. There is a great deal of invention even in minor bits, like the secretary (Mary Kay Place) who has convinced her boss that he has a speech defect that renders his every sentence unintelligible or the agent (Carlos Jacott) who blithely supports his client's decision for a mid-life career change. Deep down, even the fantasy stuff has some sort of strange internal logic.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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