When Being John Malkovich hit theaters in 1999, many critics considered it, rightly, as the most original American comedy in years. Spike Jonze’s insistently surreal headtrip featured, among other odd flourishes, an office designed to accommodate miniature ladies (“The overhead is low!”), a production of The Belle Of Amherst featuring a 60-foot-tall Emily Dickinson puppet, and, of course, a portal into the consciousness of respected character actor John Malkovich. And while it’s as uproarious now as it ever was, the film’s themes about identity and desire have only deepened with time, as the Internet has grown into a place where personae are fluid and sometimes false, and the fantasy of accessing the minds of celebrities—or anyone’s mind, for that matter—is just a Twitter feed away. What technology hasn’t changed, however, is the impulse to transcend who we are and experience the world through a different set of eyes, and Being John Malkovich addresses this wish literally and touchingly, even as it goofs on Alice In Wonderland, Brazil, the austere art of puppetry, and John Malkovich ordering bathroom towels over the phone.
It’s also the rare case where the screenwriter is the true auteur. Though Jonze, making his feature debut after years of innovative music videos and commercials, grounds Being John Malkovich in a effectively grimy naturalism, he seems mostly interested in providing the right frame for Charlie Kaufman’s ornate brushstrokes. As Malkovich reveals in an interview with John Hodgman on the new Criterion edition, Kaufman, then a novice screenwriter, was so determined to keep his original vision intact that he turned down Malkovich’s offer to produce and direct the script with another actor in the title role. Kaufman’s subsequent efforts attest to this refusal to let his work be commandeered by producers and directors—either that, or his voice was just too irrepressible to be squashed (though George Clooney, with his mangling of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, did his level best).
His face coated in stubble and flopsweat—another Kaufman hallmark, continued with Nicolas Cage in Adaptation and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York—John Cusack leads a deglamourized cast as a struggling puppeteer whose wife (a frizzy Cameron Diaz) prods him into the working world. (“Nobody’s looking for a puppeteer in today’s wintry economic climate.”) With his nimble fingers, he gets a filing job at Lestercorp, a company located on floor 7 1/2 of a New York office building. One night, Cusack peers behind a filing drawer and discovers a portal that gives him 15 minutes in John Malkovich’s head before spitting him out in a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike. When he lets an attractive co-worker (Catherine Keener) in on the secret, the two turn the portal into a tourist attraction and wind up more deeply involved in Malkovich’s life—as well as other metaphysical permutations.
The money scene in Being John Malkovich has Malkovich entering his own portal and having his image (and his ego) reflected back at him in infinite variations. But as Kaufman’s script has its characters occupying Malkovich’s consciousness while interacting with each other, it gets more emotionally complicated, too, deliberately confusing romantic desire with the desire to have someone else’s life. Though full of comic insecurity, anxiety, and merciless self-deprecation—the rocket fuel of any Kaufman screenplay—Being John Malkovich isn’t an exercise in surreal abstraction, but ultimately a love story every bit as passionate as Kaufman’s later Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s about the soul’s triumph over the corporeal.
Key features: A plethora of special features wind up sounding better in principle than they turn out to be in reality. Hodgman’s conversation with Malkovich is the best and most polished of the bunch, despite Malkovich’s tendency to make statements that sound profound but are impossible to parse. An hour of scene-specific commentary by Michel Gondry—who directed Kaufman’s scripts for Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine—proves mostly impenetrable, and Lance Bangs’ behind-the-scenes footage has been assembled too loosely. Better are the two brilliant films-within-a-film (one the 7 1/2th floor orientation video, the other a faux-doc on Malkovich’s second career as a puppeteer) and innovative TV spots that make clear how futile it was to sell the film’s concept in 30 seconds or less