Back in December, when we at NPI were going over what we were most looking forward to in the new decade, Josh mentioned his anticipation of Charlie Kaufman’s next film. He is not alone. Kaufman has many admirers: Roger Ebert called his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, the best of the Aughts, and many other sources gave that honor to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The cult of Kaufman began in earnest, though, with the release of Being John Malkovich in 1999. This film, directed by Spike Jonze, was Kaufman’s first produced screenplay. It established Kaufman’s reputation as an inventive, cerebral, and idiosyncratic voice in Hollywood.
Being John Malkovich begins, as Kaufman’s films so often do, with an absurd premise: There is a door in the protagonist’s office that leads into the consciousness of John Malkovich. The first person to find this door is the puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Schwartz is out of work because “no one wants to hire a puppeteer in this wintry economic climate,” so he takes a job as a filing clerk for Lestercorp.
As soon as Schwartz arrives for his job interview, the film’s surrealism announces itself. Lestercorp is located on the 7 ½ floor of the Mertin-Flemmer Builing (built by Captain James Mertin, who named it “after himself and someone else, who local legend has it was named ‘Flemmer’”). That is, the company exists on a floor between the 7th and 8th. The elevator doesn’t actually stop on this “floor” and the ceilings are so low there that the inhabitants have to walk around hunched over.
It is on this mysterious floor that Schwartz finds the portal to Malkovich’s brain. At first, all Schwartz can do is witness life through Malkovich’s eyes—he cannot control or do anything. Nevertheless, he is forever changed, as he tells his co-worker:
“The point is… this is a very odd thing. It’s supernatural, for lack of a better word. I mean it raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, you know, about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul. You know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?…Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is? I don’t see how I could go on living my life the way I’ve lived it before.”
This kind of reaction isn’t unique to Craig Schwartz. His wife Lotte, played by a dressed-way-down Cameron Diaz, tries it once and declares that she is a transsexual.
Anthony Lane, a film critic at The New Yorker, once said of Kaufman that he is “not so much a conjurer with a trick up his sleeve as a guy madly sewing extra sleeves onto his jacket,” and Being John Malkovich follows exactly this formula. Just when you think you have grasped the tapestry that Kaufman has created, he throws in another wrinkle. First there is Craig’s unexplained infatuation with his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener)—she is who he first tells about the portal, and together they plan to sell trips into Malkovich for $200 a piece. Despite Craig’s professed awe at the portal, his main interest in it seems to be as a way to charm and woo Maxine.
Once that has been established, though, Kaufman takes his love triangle and turns it into some weird-looking, screwed up rhombus: Lotte, too, falls for Maxine, and Maxine falls for Lotte, but only when Lotte is inside Malkovich. As a result, the two arrange dates in which Lotte goes into the portal while Maxine seduces Malkovich, who is unaware of the entire phenomenon.
After that, Kaufman adds a few more sleeves to the jacket before he sends the film careening towards a conclusion. And with each new addition to the plot, Kaufman keeps the viewer continually guessing and trying to wrap his head around the new reality of the film.
Kaufman’s movies are often praised for their ideas, and Kaufman is certainly an intensely cerebral writer. In Ebert’s review of Malkovich, he said that, “the movie has ideas enough for half a dozen films.” And on some level this is true—this explains why Kaufman bounces from one idea to the next–but having enough ideas for half a dozen films can also mean that you have too many ideas for one. There are, as Craig helpfully points out, many implications to John Malkovich having a portal into his brain, but the movie doesn’t really take the time to dwell on any of them. It uses them for a few good jokes and a neat scene or two and then moves on to something else.
Take, for example, Lotte’s flirtation with sexual reassignment. Lotte is introduced as a frumpy, compassionate character—she owns a pet store and seeks to get at each of her animal’s core psychological problems. And yet once she spends 15 minutes inside Malkovich, she becomes sexually empowered to the point that she wants to discuss sexual reassignment surgery. The scene in which she confronts Craig with this realization—“Don’t stand in the way of my actualization as a man!”—is very funny, but the story is almost immediately dropped. Once Lotte meets Maxine, she falls in love and moves from being a transsexual to just a regular old lesbian.
All of this jumping around comes at the expense of the characters. For all of Kaufman’s ideas and philosophical jokes, he doesn’t really have a good feel for how people talk or what motivates them. People keep falling in love with Maxine, for example, but there’s no real reason offered as to why. The dialogue is continually surreal and absurd, but too often the film’s surrealism just feels like an excuse to be unrealistic.
When Craig first becomes smitten with Maxine, for example, he tries to get her to have a drink with him. At first she refuses, but he gets her to agree to go if he can guess her name. His “guess,” though, is just a string of names bunched together–“BarrRuuuuBelll….”–until he lands on Maxine. When he finally settles on Maxine, she reacts as if he guessed it on the first try.
This kind of writing is weird for the sake of weird; it’s unconventional, but only to the point of confusing and bewildering the audience. The world seems not only unrealistic, but pointlessly so.
There is a similar problem with the movie’s most famous scene, in which Malkovich himself climbs into his portal. What ensues is a sort of cinematic representation of solipsism: Every person looks like Malkovich, and every word spoken is simply “Malkovich.” Such a moment could address questions of identity and consciousness, but since the scene has so little to do with the rest of the film, it doesn’t have very much resonance.
Most of all, the film seems like an excuse to string a bunch of these absurd and outlandish premises—“What happens when a man goes into his own portal?” “It isn’t just playing with dolls; it’s playing with people”—together for oddity of it all. It’s like a philosophy grad student decided to make a series of vignettes about “What If?” questions. But the film doesn’t offer any original take on these themes; Kaufman actually has very little to say about identity, consciousness, self-control, and his other themes. As such, Being John Malkovich feels like a joke without a punchline.