As human beings, we all carry some sort of fascination with celebrity culture and it’s natural to wonder what the sort of lifestyle must be like. If any film managed to sum up what it’s like to carry that sort of fascination to the point we end up living it, then Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich would be the first film I point to. The bizarre concept to which it carries is already one factor as to why it stands out on its very own, but even more impressive comes from how it was the feature film debut of director Spike Jonze, who had directed many music videos prior, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. But knowing how such films are outright impossible to repeat in this day and age, it’s among more reason I still find myself in awe of a film like Being John Malkovich, for it goes beyond its own quirks to become one of the very best films of its time, let alone one of the best debut efforts of all time.
The bizarre premise is one that’s worth repeating, an unemployed puppeteer Craig Schwartz finds a portal at his new job that allows anyone to witness events from the eyes and mind of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. Had Being John Malkovich been made today, there would be much focus around how this premise would be a throwaway joke repeated constantly for the sake of quirk, but Spike Jonze isn’t making a quirky comedy-drama through a bizarre concept. It comes from the help of Charlie Kaufman’s writing in which Being John Malkovichbecomes something far more human and thought-provoking, raising questions within our own place in society and how oneself forms their own identity. If Being John Malkovich ever was proof for anything, it would be found within how Charlie Kaufman can create a baffling idea and quickly enough it would turn out far more insightful on the inside.
Going back to our own fascination with celebrity culture and imagining how such a lifestyle is for such a person, it is only fitting that Kaufman’s characters are written the way they are. Craig Schwartz is a puppeteer who seeks more out of what he does for a living, even to the point he tries to seek an affair with his co-worker Maxine Lund despite being married to a pet-obsessed Lotte. These characters are the perfect template for such a premise, but what’s far more fascinating inside is why would Kaufman have John Malkovich out of every actor in mind to play any celebrity whose mind we are to enter. Eventually, it all becomes clear why John Malkovich is the perfect choice for such a role. A more glorified star along the lines of Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt would seem distracting for it is especially easy to recognize an identity in themselves whereas John Malkovich (playing himself fantastically) is already well-known enough yet more refined, exemplifies that even the celebrity lifestyle is just as mundane as that of the lives we see of people around us.
Our three lead characters as stated in the above paragraph are faceless figures within society, but these figures are only go ahead to show a greater feeling of insight present in Being John Malkovich. As made clear from the satire regarding celebrity culture and one’s fascination with such, seeing John Cusack and Cameron Diaz playing against type as people searching for a newfound identity through entering the mind of John Malkovich becomes a showcase for Kaufman’s thoughtfulness. Cusack’s Craig Schwartz, a man who is at distance from the reality around him, finds a greater comfort in an infatuation for Maxine, who does not reciprocate his feelings – and Cameron Diaz’s Lotte is equally fascinated with this process in order to live out another identity through her transgender desires. Quickly enough, an idea that could easily have become a single-joke comedy with entering the mind of John Malkovich soon becomes a thought-provoking commentary on the lack of identity within its setting, which appears to be a city just like any other city in America.
Being John Malkovich isn’t without its own quirks whether it be where a number of occurrences take place (the 7½ floor, with its low ceilings and bizarre history), the characters and how they function in their world (Floris constantly mishearing words to the point it caused Lester to believe he has a speech impediment), or its own sense of humour. Yet these quirks only reinforce how inventive Being John Malkovich is as a whole for director Spike Jonze’s own end, given his own experience with directing music videos. Visually, it’s already impressive enough but under Spike Jonze’s own eyes everything is so fittingly odd because it isn’t afraid of growing odder from how it handles the ideas that it wishes to explore. From the quirks it carries on the surface it only hints that we’re watching something funny enough, yet deep down we have something far more fully realized at first try.
It’s easy to ask your own self about what it’s like to live life as someone else, if you’re unsure about your own placement in society with your given identity. If any film had perfectly explored that idea and what it is like for oneself to go out and live under a different identity that best expresses yourself, then Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich exemplifies such a thought process. Beyond the quirky and surreal premise, what Jonze and Charlie Kaufman have conceptualized is not only one of the funniest films of its time, it is also one of the most insightful commentaries on finding a sense of identity within a world full of the mundane just as it is also a brilliant satire about people’s fascination with celebrity culture. Considering how much thought had come into what is a debut film for director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich could not have been any more fully realized as is.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
Produced by Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin, Vincent Landay
Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, John Malkovich, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen
Release Year: 1999
Running Time: 112 minutes