Being John Malkovich—the brainchild of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze—is still one of the great modern American films. However, what it meant to me at the time of release is not what it means to me now. And looking at it in a macro sense, it represents a lot more than just a perfect collaboration.
In 2020, 1999's Being John Malkovich feels like it was the beginning of a transitional time in cinema. A time when the idea was still king, but the brand was becoming increasingly important. This was before the modern superhero wave. Before the turn of the millennium. It was a time to look both back and look ahead. When you do that you realize if “Being John Malkovich” was “Being John Smith” and the person whose head everyone went into wasn’t actually a real celebrity playing themselves, the whole thing loses some flair. The idea works in a large part because Malkovich is well-known. In this case, he’s the franchise. He is the Marvel. The Star Wars. Without him, the movie is probably still interesting, but his presence and name brand elevate it.
How the hell does Being John Malkovich exist? Twenty-one years later, that’s a question I still ask myself. That something so audacious, so ludicrous, so brilliant was actually made and released was, and remains, a miracle. Plus, it has aged beautifully—timeless inspiration that fills every second of the film. As time moves on, we can continually analyze and recontextualize the story through society, cinema, or personal experience. It changes for us, though it doesn’t change at all. It’s that damn good. Or, maybe, we’re all just vessels and someone new is along for the ride.
On the off chance you haven’t seen Being John Malkovich, here’s the quick recap. It’s about a puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) who discovers a portal that allows someone to become actor John Malkovich (who plays himself) for 15 minutes. Craig uses the discovery to win over the object of his desire, a co-worker named Maxine (Catherine Keener), whom Craig’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) eventually falls in love with too. The film then becomes a struggle between Craig and Lotte as they both battle for Maxine’s affections from inside the body of John Malkovich.
Because Malkovich is a film of transformation released in a time of transition, to accurately discuss it today requires some talk about the past. I first saw Being John Malkovich on October 15, 1999. How do I remember that date? Because I went from an early screening of Malkovich to the opening night of David Fincher’s Fight Club. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever had a better double feature of two brand new movies, and I probably never will. At that time, age 19, what struck my most about Malkovich was just how bold it was; the sheer audacity of its premise, the incredible precision of its execution, the bravery of John Malkovich to not just allow the movie to exist, but to star in it and give a performance for the ages.
Today, those things all still amaze me, but they hardly do the film justice. They’re the thoughts of a teenager just learning about movies. The kind of person who later that night would think Fight Club was so cool for being so macho. Boy, did I not get it.
Watching Malkovich as an adult is certainly a different experience. At first, it’s a story of “the grasser is always greener” as both Craig and Lotte find the experience of being a rich and famous actor fulfilling. Lotte’s revelation goes even further as she believes she’s not a woman, but a trans man and craves the masculinity of Malkovich. Craig, on the other hand, uses the actor to become the ultimate version of himself, eventually taking over Malkovich’s body like it was an elaborate puppet. Craig gets fame, fortune, and, for a time, the desires of Maxine.
For both Craig and Lotte, the idea of being someone else is better at first. In reality, all that pain and lust only leads them to discover their true selves; Lotte is not the cis woman she thought she was and Craig may, in fact, be the creative genius he thought he was but doesn’t have the nerve to achieve it on his own. The realities of life set in once they give everything of themselves and while one finds happiness, the other finds only pain.
That achieving a dream, then letting it go, can lead to enlightenment is a very humbling idea and yet thinking about the film in only those terms still somehow feels inadequate. That’s just one opinion dealing with one aspect of the film; there’s so much more to consider. For example, the whole notion of self and immortality that the idea of a “vessel” raises. Is John Malkovich ever really himself? Are any of us? Then there’s the fascinating rumination on celebrity versus artistic ability. Craig was obviously a talented puppeteer, but he only experienced true success when he became the already-famous Malkovich. Was he actually talented or was Malkovich merely popular?
The film is an ocean of ideas, concepts, and discussions all handled very delicately. Kaufman’s script coupled with Jonze’s direction presents the ideas just below the surface. They’re there. You see them. But there’s a detachment. And that barrier is wacky, weird, and hilarious. You’re never bored for a second during Being John Malkovich and even as you ingest the story, its ideas latch onto you, almost without effort. Truly, I could wax poetically and heap praise on Being John Malkovich for several thousand more words. The performances. The music. The production design. It’s all so understated and magnificent. Though it’s a film of grandiose ideas, Jonze presents them all in such a familiar, almost meek way, that everything becomes more believable. This is a world anyone can recognize, no matter who we are, even a famous celebrity.
And yet, maybe the fact the film is so thematically malleable does, in fact, help illuminate everything about it. Maybe the ability to become someone else is simply what life is. We all grow up. We all change. But the body remains the same. Maybe 19-year-old “Fight Club rulez!” Germain is still in there somewhere, but 40-year-old me just happens to now be steering the ship. Or maybe that’s all bullshit. The point is, over two decades since its release, Being John Malkovich isn’t just tour-de-force it always was. It’s a masterpiece that just gets better and better.
- I used to think Charlie Sheen playing himself was cute and funny but it’s the one aspect of the film that the passage of 20 years totally ruins. Mountains of bad press and horrid allegations will do that.
- I didn’t realize it until now but the film’s climactic action scene with Lotte and Maxine racing through Malkovich’s subconscious reminded me that Kaufman kind of ripped himself off a few years later. At the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel and Clementine run through his subconscious. Is it stealing if you’re stealing from yourself?
- Spoiler alert but are Lotte and Maxine OK with their daughter becoming the vessel at the end? How will they deal with that moving ahead? Though I’d never go as far as to say “make a sequel,” I would be fascinated to see how two parents live when they’re fully aware their daughter will basically be impregnated with the essence of dozens of old people at 44.
- I was today years old when I realized that the double feature I enjoyed in 1999 shared a common thread. David Fincher, director of Fight Club, cameos in Being John Malkovich as a journalist during the Malkovich puppeteer news story. Talk about coincidence. Oh, and when I shut off Malkovich after watching it over the weekend, what film was on TV? Fight Club. [Editor’s note: *Twilight Zone noises intensify*]
Being John Malkovich is currently streaming on Netflix.
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