No 441 - Being John Malkovich
Director - Spike Jonze
A couple of days ago I went to see Where the Wild Things Are and I found it a truly upsetting experience. Don't get me wrong - you MUST all watch it, it is a beautiful and emotional journey and a visually stunning film. It is also a detached, cold, harsh and painfully heartbreaking study of loneliness. I found it very difficult viewing and at times almost inaccessible. I'm amazed that this was considered a 'kid's film' for a while.
After watching it I felt inspired to go and watch some of Jonze's past films to see if they were as hard and as moving as Where the Wild Things Are. So, it makes sense to begin with his ridiculous debut film.
The plot is too difficult to explain as there are so many little additional parts of it which make the story twist and turn. But the key essence of the film is paraphrased by the protagonist, Greg Schwartz (John Cusack)
There's a tiny door in my office, Maxine. It's a portal and it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes... and then after about 15 minutes, you're spit out... into a ditch on the side of The New Jersey Turnpike.
Therein follows a film which blends a very fucked up love triangle with talk of what it is to have a soul, how you can manipulate people, immortality, fame, perception and obsession. It is a deliberately obtuse and confusing film, and yet I find it far more light hearted and far more accessible than WTWTA. I think part of this comes from Charlie Kaufman's very odd sense of humour. His film is willfully strange, hiding the intelligence of the bonkers central concept with layers of peculiar whimsy.
It is like Synechdoche New York (the only film Kaufman both wrote and directed) - the central concept is very strange, the premise is disturbingly bleak but the layers of silly fantasy around it keep the film enjoyable and funny. I think Malkovich is a comedy. A black comedy that has got incredibly twisted over the way but a comedy none the less. But there are no reasons for a lot of the weirdness in the film.
Let us look at what happens:
Greg's Office is on the 7 1/2 floor - this is sort of explained in the film, but not really... not in a way that really makes sense.
The odd odd Orientation video filled with cheaply made 70's nonsense.
In fact everything about Lestercorp is weird. The whole feel of the film is farcical (Dr Lester him self is a hilariously kinky old letch. It does make me chuckle).
The film just manages to stay light hearted, it means it can present quite painful or confusing subjects in a way that entertains rather than alienates.
For example. Look at Elijah the chimp's flashback to when he was being hunted. We're watching animal hunting, definite cruelty, but the way it is presented is so novel and unexpected that you're forced to laugh.
Or when Malkovich enters Malkovich and you're facing the most hilarious metaphysical headfuck - it kind of looks like Roald Dahl's witches are meeting up.
Malkovich's portrayal of himself is quite understated and he is made to look like a very normal and nice man. It is a bit odd seeing him as normal - talking about sex or smoking a joint for example - but he comes off as refined and gentle, albeit confused.
It is an interesting portrayal when compared to the two leads of Greg and Maxine (Catherine Keener) who are both unlikable. Greg is a whiney selfish git of a man and Maxine is just pure evil. A self centred manipulative bitch who enjoys messing people around.
The two protagonists become all the more unlikable when you compare them to the nicer characters like Malkovich or Dr Lester (who is a perv but amusing and charming with it) and Greg's wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz). Yes, she has one of the most complicated and confusing affairs in the world, but she is so naive and so NICE that she pulls it off without the audience hating her.
And what I like about Diaz and Cusack is that they're willing to grubby up because neither Greg nor Lottie are typically 'Hollywood Hot' people. It shows a massive change from Diaz's grand opening in The Mask just five years earlier (and yes, that was an entirely crowbarred aside just so I could include this clip). But then this becomes a typical part of Kaufman's films, they seem to involve the leading characters no looking all that attractive.
Really, when you look at it, I'm amazed this film is as approachable as it is. It is weird. Painfully weird. It contains puppets, which are creepy (though the puppet work in this is astounding). It is about being unfulfilled and wanting to be something (or someone) else and it is contains 2 truly horrible protagonists.
Yet throughout all of that it remains wittier and more accessible than a film starring the coolest kid ever and characters from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. Go figure.
Though, the film does have one massively chilling point. The ending. It is horrible. It is such a traumatic final thought, such a bleak and distressing notion. It is amazing.
I can't even attempt to explain it, it takes most of the film to build up to that point. But go watch it and see for yourself.