When Being John Malkovich was fresh from the New York Film Festival, if you worked on the creative side in advertising and promotions you were likely to have at least one client or supervisor present you with a VHS or 3/4″ tape bootleg of it for inspiration. Beyond inspiration—life-altering revelation about what was possible onscreen, narratively and spatially. You might think, “What conceivable relation does this have to what we’re advertising?” What you would say was, “Which shot were you thinking of, in particular?”
The client or supervisor, visibly frustrated at your failure to recognize his genius (it would always be a he), would shuttle the tape to the scene you were to replicate … or, draw on: when Craig (John Cusack) first peers into the portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor of the Mertin Flemmer building; or when Craig first takes his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) down the portal to spend fifteen minutes in John Malkovich before landing beside the New Jersey Turnpike; or when Craig watches with his crush and business partner, Maxine (Catherine Keener), while Malkovich himself enters the portal and ends up in a cabaret of infinite Malkovichs.
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. The name gets funnier with each repetition, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze—in 1999 the film was more likely to be known as a Spike Jonze film—know it. We’re on a first-name basis with Maxine and Lotte, but every character refers to Malkovich by last name from the moment he enters … or, from the moment we enter him.
The portal could seem a gimmick to excite buzz (“You Must See This Film!”) by way of a memorable visual, but it’s also an essential, functional device. Narratives that tinker with the boundaries of reality have to decide: how much are their characters going to recognize the shift? Is the film’s weirdness going to be an angle on a world that remains recognizable? Or are things going to get truly, fundamentally weird?
Craig enters Malkovich with a board in his hand. When he’s dumped out along the Turnpike, the board is gone. “Did it disappear?” he asks Maxine. “Is it inside Malkovich? How could that be?” (The board reappears alongside Craig when he exits Malkovich for the last time).
Minor, inexplicable absurdities accrue. Craig is always able to get from Midtown Manhattan to the right spot on the Jersey turnpike in less than fifteen minutes. How did the portal, discovered by Captain Mertin, get into the building that Mertin supposedly built? Mertin/Lester has invited friends to join him in Malkovich. Will they share volition? Merge into a group consciousness? Take turns? When Lester, last of the group, enters Malkovich, the Malkovich body shudders, makes a face and says, seeming pleased to be getting used to the idea, “We’re… Malkovich.” So the others are in there, somehow—and even Lester and friends refer to the actor by last name only. Unnervingly, enjoyably for the audience, the film adheres rigorously to the rules of its skewed universe. But in Being John Malkovich, the appearance of things working out or making sense is a signal to be uneasy.
Characteristically, Craig rushes back from his first, inadvertent sojourn in Malkovich to tell Maxine, “It’s supernatural, is what it is […]. It raises all sorts of philosophical-type questions, about the nature of the self, the existence of the soul… Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?” That’s the last that anyone in the film asks about the nature of the self. They’re interested less in philosophical-type questions than in desire—what can the portal do for them?
Maxine is disgusted with Craig, until she gets the idea of charging admission for fifteen minutes in Malkovich. Craig has qualms—are they really going to use something this significant just to make money?—but he is able to overcome them at the prospect of after-hours time with Maxine. The portal serves where mundane means may have failed, but desires remain definitely in the physical world.
Desires do not, however, all remain constant. The portal is a catalyst, each adjustment of reality it enables enabling another, each attained desire leading characters to new longings. Craig brings Lotte to see the portal, to prove that his story—the facts of it, not his secret motivation—is real. Pulled into Malkovich, Lotte discovers she likes being in a man’s body, and Maxine discovers she loves Lotte—but only when Lotte is in Malkovich. Maxine, ever opportunistic, is willing to continue the arrangement, until Lotte calls her, sobbing, to tell her that for their last few trysts, Craig has been the one in Malkovich. Maxine wonders aloud: if Craig can control Malkovich, and she can control Craig—
Urged by Maxine to stay in Malkovich, Craig does, and just as vessels are powerless to stop themselves from being entered, the performing arts world seems helpless against him, for a time. He instigates a renaissance in puppetry; in an interview, Sean Penn predicts that he and many others will abandon acting for puppetry. Absurdity is infectious. The emperor must be wearing clothes—he’s the emperor, why would his new clothes be…nothing? But Craig doesn’t get a happily ever after—not because he’s left Lotte and stolen Malkovich’s body, but because he hasn’t accounted for Lester … or, it turns out, for Lotte and Maxine.
Most of the main characters use the portal to satisfy persistent, all-consuming desires—Craig for puppetry, Craig and Lotte for Maxine, Lester for immortality. Only Maxine uses it to enact a momentary impulse in a lasting way, forsaking Lotte for money and fame with Craig-as-Malkovich. Only Maxine regrets what the portal gets her. She, more than anyone else in the film, seems by the end an entirely different person, choosing what the earlier Maxine had—could—not. The Lotte who ends up with her is fundamentally the same Lotte who was with Craig, decent and sincere; Lester transports into the Malkovich body, but when we last see Malkovich, he has a fine new head of white hair, much like Lester’s, and is wearing Lester’s habitual burgundy cardigan, speaking in Lester’s cadences, showing Charlie Sheen a wall of photos of the next vessel. “What if I told you I’d found a way for all of us to live forever?” he says. “You, me… Gary Sinise, maybe.”
Lester seems immune from regret, utterly unconcerned that he is stealing vessels’ lives. He will never grow in any philosophical-type way. He doesn’t need to; unlike Craig, he was fortunate enough to want something that turned out to be attainable. But his immortal middle age will always be consumed with securing the next vessel, whoever it might be, and keeping tabs on the vessel after that. He is paused at the moment of realizing he can be immortal, forever unsure until the last minute if the next round will work out. He is as much stuck in his desire as Craig is.
Lester and Craig view the objects of their desire as their right, merited by their perceptual genius in knowing to want them. Consumed with altering the world accordingly, they become unwilling, unable to negotiate the world as it is. Lotte and Maxine refuse the portal, of their own free will. They choose to accede to the world as it is. In the last scene, they’re laughing poolside. Their talk is the freest in the film. There is no want in it, no demand or fear or lack or rush. Emily, the daughter Maxine had with Lotte-as-Malkovich, looks at us. But it’s Craig’s voice we hear, from deep within Emily’s subconscious, plaintively repeating, “I love you, Maxine.” Is Craig, the master puppeteer, truly trapped, as others would be after transporting into an infant vessel? Or does he choose to stay, trapped only by his desires, watching Maxine and Lotte live happily ever after?
The film doesn’t let us know whether they suspect that Emily is the next vessel. She has until midnight, the day she turns forty-four.
The gap between the girl’s knowledge and ours is exquisitely cruel. She has no idea what awaits her. Kaufman leaves us knowing everything, powerless to act. Looking out, like Craig. It raises all kinds of questions, but not the philosophical type. They’re more elemental than that.