Brain Humor

Playing Head Games with the Director, Writer, and Star of Being John Malkovich

 October 26, 1999

It was always self-evident that when Spike Jonze, the most offhandedly avant-garde and whacked-out of the MTV brats, moved on from commercials and music videos to feature films, the result would acquire instant cult significance. But even his most inventive promos (the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," the Levi's operating-theater spot) could not have prefigured the sustained ingenuity of Being John Malkovich (opening October 29). In first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze has found a partner in inspired lunacy.

Recklessly absurd, Kaufman's premise is a brain-bending amalgam of Borges, Svankmajer, Kafka, and Alice in Wonderland: Craig, a frustrated puppeteer played by John Cusack, stumbles upon a portal that leads into the head of John Malkovich (playing himself). The woman Craig is smitten with, Maxine (Catherine Keener), sees the discovery as a cash cow and starts charging admission; for Craig's wife, Lotte (an unrecognizably dowdy Cameron Diaz), the experience is so transportive it's the first step to sexual reassignment surgery.

State of being: John Malkovich, 1999
photo: Robin Holland
State of being: John Malkovich, 1999

Though its surreal, fabulist quality invites metaphoric readings, the beauty of Being John Malkovich is that its headlong lysergic logic prevents the film from lingering on any one theme. The movie unearths, in Craig's words, one "metaphysical can of worms" after another, and like the pure-pop fantasia it is, deems them all disposable— like a really good trip, it's always hurtling toward something somehow crazier and more profound. Throughout, Jonze directs with a poker face that sneakily downplays the relentless forward motion and renders the underlying sense of mischief doubly anarchic.

Celebrity fixation ends up as the most superficial aspect of Being John Malkovich, though Jonze and Kaufman get to the root of the condition more succinctly and less glibly than any Hollywood media-age parable ever has. The company slogan for JM Inc., the portal-exploiting enterprise Maxine and Craig set up, is "Have you ever wanted to be someone else?" and it's implicit that the fundamental desire being served is not adventure but escape (have you ever not wanted to be yourself?). As a matter of course, the film goes further, folding erotic frustration, romantic paranoia, and sexual-identity crises into a gender-bending mindfuck of a love triangle— a quadrangle, if you count Malkovich the vessel body, which you probably should. And there's more still: the philosophical implications of virtual reality; mortal fear and the transmigration of souls; human frailty and the desperately real need for personal reinvention.

It's just as well that their film is so richly and casually suggestive, since Jonze and Kaufman's idea of PR seems to involve not discussing the movie in any meaningful way. It's the day after BJM's U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival and the glitzy postscreening party at the Harvard Club, which was decked out for the night with gilt-framed Malkovich portraits and swarming with Malko-look-alikes reciting the mantra "Malkovich, Malkovich" (an echo of one of the film's funniest and most unnerving scenes, in which Malkovich tunnels into his own head to discover a sea of Malkoviches intoning his/their name). Malkovich, Jonze, and Kaufman are gathered in a midtown hotel suite, and observing the three together, you're amazed that their collaboration proved so cohesive— they don't even seem to be from the same planet. Malkovich's stream of consciousness emanates in a dreamy, almost disembodied monotone; Jonze, though friendly and keen to please, falters every time he opens his mouth; Kaufman, unaccustomed to interrogation, spends most of the interview squirming.

Of the three, Kaufman seems most guarded, especially when the conversation turns to the cerebral foundations of his screenplay. "I don't know if the movie's saying one thing," he says. "I mean, I didn't write it that way. I wrote it as an exploration of different things, and I just wrote it as I wrote it. I didn't have a master plan."

Could he at least say why, of all people, he chose John Malkovich? "Does it make sense to you why it's John Malkovich?" Yes, kind of, but could he elaborate? "I'd rather not because if it makes sense then it works. I'd rather let people have their experience of it. I just thought it was right, and I never veered from that. There were times when it looked like it was going to be made and Spike and I didn't know yet if [Malkovich] was going to do it and we had to think of other people and it was impossible for us to come up with anybody else that was satisfying. I feel therefore Malkovich is the right person— we spent all this time trying to think of who else it could be and couldn't."

Jonze, even more hesitant, offers his theory. "One of the things I think is interesting, which is one of the reasons Charlie— I don't want to put words in his mouth— chose John is, you don't know much about him so you project onto him."

Malkovich— whose first words upon entering the room are "Great, I can finally put these two kids under fire"— says it wasn't too difficult to divorce himself from the John Malkovich of the script. "I didn't think about it in terms of me. It's a construct. I didn't really think about why he chose me, or really worry about it." Malkovich is, of course, perfect for the role. A wholly distinctive enigma, he's either the most affected actor on earth or the most affectless. Few performers can mesmerize like Malkovich, yet his blustery screen presence and insidiously knowing manner beg for deflation— and, in subtle ways, he is often his harshest deflator. This becomes deliciously evident when, asked if he approached the role differently than he would any other, he responds, "Without being too polemical, I don't really think of myself as John Malkovich."

Next Page »