“Consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer.”
Spike Jonze is an interesting character. If you don’t watch a lot of movies, you’ll probably recognize him as that guy in The Wolf of Wall Street who said he would give Leo a blowjob if he sold all those stocks. But if you do watch a lot of movies, you’ll recognize him as a major player in cinema right now with such hits as Her, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, and of course, Being John Malkovich. This was my first time seeing the movie, and I really didn’t expect to be taken on such a twisted journey, but I guess I enjoyed the ride, so let’s begin.
Being John Malkovich is about a very sad puppeteer named Craig Schwartz, played by John Cusack, who stumbles upon a portal that lets him inside the mind of leading American actor John Malkovich. That’s right, it’s the real John Malkovich. Other major players in the plot include Maxine (Catherine Keener), Craig’s co-worker with whom he is hopelessly infatuated, along with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) who really likes taking care of animals and also discovers that she is a transgender man. The lives of these people turn upside down, inside out, and are terribly distorted by the discovery of this Malkovich portal, with perhaps the greatest victim of the film being Malkovich himself. It’s a surreal story with unique ideas to drive it from start to finish.
A lot of people really love this movie, and I think I love it in a few ways too. I’m always into movies with original ideas. There’s nary a cliché in sight with this movie, and every minute of the story will have you scratching your head and really just astounded that somebody could come up with this whole concept. The movie is worth watching for its plot alone, and the biggest takeaway for me was the power of a completely new concept. You see a lot of movies playing on boring story arcs with such minor tweaks, but Being John Malkovich throws out any preconceived idea of what a movie is supposed to look like. The characters don’t fit into any conventional boxes, and the plot lives in a world unlike any movie I’ve seen before. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is to be commended for the film’s success, as the concept is really the driving force here.
While I was fascinated, I can’t say I was kept entirely entertained. First, the film has a dark tone that works well with the script but turned me off to watching. I completely understand the dismal overtones that Jonze and Kaufman are working to create, but it was uncomfortable in a way that made me not want to watch the film again. It also just seemed to lack visual focus at times, choosing a more offbeat aesthetic as opposed to a more pleasing one. There are some cool choices, such as the low ceilings in Craig’s office or the muddy tunnel leading into Malkovich’s mind, but nothing really pops out, and the film can feel dull by the end. Also, I didn’t find any character I could root for. Craig makes some unforgivable choices in the film to obtain his goals, and the other characters are just as amoral. In some cases, this can work well for a film, but it made it a strange journey for me to follow without something to hold on to. Again, I realize all these choices were intentional for visionary and thematic reasons and are not as much technical faults as they are aspects that kept me from being entertained.
While the movie feels more like an outside look at some characters instead of following one person’s journey, I still feel that the cast brought out some strong acting. John Cusack gives a tragic portrayal of Craig Schwartz, and everything good and bad that happens to him feels justified. (Maybe the movie is meant to be seen as a moral lesson: don’t take advantage of portals to people’s minds.) Maxine comes off as a detestable monster, and if this is what Catherine Keener was going for it was spot on. Her power and confidence in the role is a nice contrast to Cusack’s stumbling awkwardness. I suppose I was really impressed by the acting; I just didn’t like the characters. Craig might raise a moral qualm every now and then, but he’s just as much a villain as anyone else in the film, and it loses some of its grounding through this choice. I’m not sure if it was “the right choice” for the movie to put this spin on all the characters, but it certainly has its consequences.
Being John Malkovich is a strange experience – much stranger than I expected. Some people label it a comedy, but I saw it as far more of a tragic tale. There’s some really harrowing character work with a really dark plot at the forefront. It falls into that common category of movies I’m glad I saw but really wouldn’t care to see again. Spike Jonze brings really impressive directing, and the film is of high quality, but I guess I couldn’t see enough value in the absurdity of it to really care. You’re asking a lot of an audience when you make a movie such as this one, and it should be commended for taking risks, but I just didn’t feel it delivered all the way.
Films Left to Watch: 951