Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twelve


#12 — Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
Charlie Kaufman has his screenwriting Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and he has plenty of swooning admirers ready to step forward and declare either of his metanarrative Möbius bands, Adaptation. or Synecdoche, New York, the purest distillation of his own unique form of absurdist existentialism. There are things to admire in all of those works, to be sure. Kaufman concocts crazy, complicated cinematic puzzles, and the offbeat invention that is seemingly second nature to him gives him one of the most distinct voices in modern movie-making. But from my viewpoint, he’s never gotten it as wonderfully, perfectly right as he did with his first produced feature screenplay. Being John Malkovich is as willfully bizarre as anything else sprung from Kaufman’s mind. It’s also shrewd and spirited and emotionally insightful. More importantly, it’s the one time that Kaufman didn’t write himself into a corner he couldn’t quite get out of.

Part of the film’s success is the perfect pairing of script with director. This was also the feature debut for Spike Jonze, then known best for dependably demonstrating that genius could be channeled successfully into music videos and commercials. He took all the lunacy of Kaufman’s screenplay–the bland office environment crammed into a half-sized building floor, the domestic apartment crawling with animals, and, of course, the portal that allowed anyone to briefly slip inside the psyche of actor John Malkovich before being mysteriously deposited on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike–and treated it with deadpan acceptance, as if nothing in the film were any stranger than a lawyer arguing a case or a police officer examining a crime scene. It is because it is, in the same way that any number of films gladly traffic in the implausible. By not getting enamored with the oddities of the story, and thereby avoiding the inevitable glad-handing of the audience that follows when a director wants to signal that they’re in on the joke, Jonze is able to concentrate in the deeper, sounder truths that anchor the whole thing.

Given the way that people line up to pay a fee for the chance to experience a moment or two in the life of John Malkovich, the film is clearly about the desire for escape from self, the chance to put away personal identity to seek the greener grass of another person’s day-to-day. All is drudgery, but there’s got to be something better through that portal. Maybe Malkovich is just puttering around his kitchen, calling in an order from a flimsy catalog, but it’s something still something different, and tinted with the added allure of celebrity, even if it’s modest enough that few of the people the actor encounters can quite pin down where they know him from.

Though he always liked the script, it reportedly took John Malkovich some time to commit to playing himself. He was convinced the script should be reworked for another actor, but it’s hard to imagine the film without the balmy tour de force of his performance, which expertly plays upon his onscreen persona which interweaves relatability with a lurking sense that he’s just a little off. In other words, he has an inherent quality that matches the film like a mimeographed image. Like John Malkovich himself, Being John Malkovich might be strange, unpredictable and a little head-spinning, but the overall quality that sticks is how real and human it is.

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