Criterion Commentaries: Being John Malkovich
I remember when I had just turned 14, and on Bravo was this TV Spot for a movie called Being John Malkovich. I had never heard of it, and I had no idea what it was about. All I knew was that the cast alone would guarantee that I would see it. The TV spot that guaranteed my viewing of it was this:
Unfortunately for me though, I was essentially prohibited from seeing it. Not because my parents were strict or anything like that. But it was for two other reasons. One, its studio USA Films never really expanded its release near me (At its peak, it only played in about 650 theatres), and two, the nearest theater that was playing it was almost 50 miles away (I lived in Vista, California then, so the nearest place playing it was all the way in Downtown San Diego). For a young teenager who had no choice but to bring the mom to see it with him, I was already asking for a lot more than I should have.
But I still had no idea what the movie was actually about. In 1999, it was a lot harder to get information about movies. And that was especially true with getting access to movie trailers. These days, almost all of them are one click away, but in those days, if you didn’t have the fastest computer around, it could take hours to just download and watch a trailer (and since it wasn’t my computer, I had no real option in watching it there). Then, when E!’s show Coming Attractions! hosted by Todd Newton (Boy, has it really been over 12 years since its release?) showed the trailer, I finally saw what it was all about.
My mind immediately went, “Wow! What a great concept! Could it really be as good as it looks from this trailer?”
On January 8, 2000, I got to find out as my mother took me to the now defunct United Artists 8 theater in Escondido, California for an afternoon showing of the movie. The experience was initially surreal, but I could easily see immediately why every critic in the nation was talking about this movie. This was easily the best movie I saw in 1999 (and although I had yet to see both American Beauty or Magnolia at that time, I just didn’t see them being any better than this. That instinct ended up being correct).
One of the major reasons I responded to the movie as much as I did was because it managed to do more in 112 minutes than just about every other movie I had ever seen. In short, it was the first time that I saw a movie that could be both original and great at the same time. Before this film, all of the other movies I had then seen were either one or the other, but it was Being John Malkovich that showed me that movies could be so much more than what I initially thought they were.
As complicated as the movie is, the story for the most part starts out so simple. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a puppeteer who can never catch a break. He applies for a file clerk job at Lestercorp in the Mertin-Flemmer Building, only to discover that the job is on the 7 1/2 floor, which is essentially a floor with low overheads. The discovery of this floor, along with the full subsequent sequences where he is interviewed and hired by Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) and meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) are pitch-perfect sequences of how timing and structure means everything, especially in setting up characters that we are going to need to understand and follow through the rest of the story.
Craig is married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz at her most unrecognizable), who is desperate to have a child, and although he tells her that he wants to see how this job pays off first, we already know the real reason. He is infatuated with Maxine, and will do anything he can to impress her. When he does get rejected by her, it is about this time that Craig discovers a tiny door in the file office. When he opens it, he discovers a portal, and within moments, he is thrown into the mind of John Malkovich. For 15 minutes, Craig gets to see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes (enjoying his breakfast, riding in a cab), and then he is spit out onto a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
And its right here that the originality of the film comes full circle. The film has shown wonderful comic invention leading up to this sequence that once Craig has been spit out onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, the film could have easily gone on auto pilot for the remaining 80 minutes. But the amazing script by Charlie Kaufman and the exquisite direction by Spike Jonze isn’t lazy in the least. Each progressive scene builds upon the film’s gimmick and starts to give the portal more depth. By the time Lotte has gone through the portal, she looks at it as a life changing event, but as she and Craig go to dinner at Dr. Lester’s, she discovers a room on the second floor that is a Malkovich shrine. She doesn’t realize the true significance of the room, and even as she tries to explain it to Craig in the car on the way home, he can’t fathom that Lester might play a part in the puzzle. To him, it’s essentially ludicrous.
The next great idea of the film is to turn the Malkovich portal into a money-making enterprise on the side. Kaufman is wise to start this sequence small, but once it gets big, it becomes something no one can ignore. Malkovich’s story starts to officially intertwine with the characters around this time as well as Maxine pursues a relationship with him while at the same time, she is showing feelings for Lotte.
From here on out, I hate to divulge the rest of the story. This is partly because to ruin the last hour’s surprises would be completely wrong for those who have not seen it. And while many of us members have, even you would agree with me. Still, it gets more and more complicated, and the more complicated it gets (especially when Craig decides to take control of Malkovich for himself), the more entertaining and original it becomes. The film ends on one of the best notes ever, as we realize that the process of how the portal works will most likely be corrupted forever as the credits start rolling.
It’s also interesting to see Charlie Sheen make his appearance here before he went entirely crazy. Before “winning” was his catchphrase, this was in my opinion Sheen’s most out-there performance. Every time he opened his mouth in his two scenes, he was almost guaranteed a laugh. To this day, I’m still probably the only one who finds it funny that Malkovich and Sheen have names for each other at the end of the film as Malkovich answers the door in the film’s final sequence.
Still, what dazzles even more is the fact that the movie continues to surprise even on repeat viewings. On those viewings, it does the same thing Fight Club does. You notice the little details, and you finally realize that all of the pieces of Kaufman’s complicated puzzle fit. More proof that not only is this is a story where Kaufman thought out the basic essentials of the elaborate love triangle between Craig, Lotte, Maxine, and Malkovich. He also thought out all of the gimmicks involving the portal and how it works. Any other normal Hollywood movie at that time probably would’ve skimmed over that latter detail, but Kaufman was smart to delve into it (The sequence where Malkovich realizes what is really going on and goes inside the portal is still one of the most spellbinding sequences I have ever seen in any movie, and that’s thanks to both Kaufman and Jonze).
As a brand new Criterion title (It streets May 15th), Being John Malkovich is finally getting an honor that has been long overdue. In the last decade, the film has grown from more than just being a true original. It has only grown in stature as one of the most celebrated films of our generation. I’ve always believed that if there are people who have never seen it, they must give it a chance. The new set’s bonus materials recycle a lot of the material that was on the original DVD release, including both the 7 1/2 floor orientation film and the Malkovich documentary seen in the film. I’m glad these have been retained because seeing them in their full-length shows you how much work the set pieces take in order for them to work in the final film. New to this set though is a scene-specific commentary by Jonze and Michel Gondry, and also a half hour interview with John Malkovich. I look forward to enjoying these new extras when the Criterion Blu-Ray streets in a week, but for now, I have to drool over the existence of these new extras until then.
Kaufman’s stance as a writer as only grown since this film’s release. To this day, I’m still shocked that the film never received a Best Picture nomination, nor did it receive a nomination for Carter Burwell’s beautifully haunting score. Regardless, Being John Malkovich continues to be one of the most talked-about movies of all time! A tour de force of acting, writing, and directing, Kaufman might have topped himself with the equally complicated yet just as dazzling Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it will always be his first script that he will be remembered for. More importantly, I think its stature as a future classic is assured, and in a few years down the road, it will be considered one of the greatest movies ever made by many prominent critics of today. Time will continue to be kind to Being John Malkovich, and it will get the true fame it has been deserving of since its original release.
Being John Malkovich ranks #11 of 3,121 movies on my Flickchart.
P.S.: For those who have never seen the film, are you still not convinced? Maybe Criterion can help a little bit: