Funny, disturbing fable has offbeat premise

Published December 1, 1999

John Malkovich plays himself, caught up in the strangest of circumstances in Being John Malkovich.

SOMETIMES there’s a film with a premise so weird that I just have to go see it. Being John Malkovich, a first time effort from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman, is one of those films.

Here’s the premise: an office clerk finds a door behind a filing cabinet that is a portal into the head of actor John Malkovich. Anyone who enters the portal gets 15 minutes to see what he sees and feel what he feels, and then is ejected into a ditch near the New Jersey turnpike. How’s that for original?

[pullquote]This funny, disturbing and profound film will appeal to fans of Monty Python, to adults who are not easily offended, and to philosophical psychologists who contemplate the nature of consciousness.

The office clerk is a puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), whose career in street puppet theatre is a disaster. No Punch and Judy comedy for this artist, instead he creates works like his own version of Abelard and Heloise. At home, Schwartz is unhappy in his marriage: his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) runs a pet store, and their home is overrun with animal boarders all of whom have problems.

Unable to support himself as a puppeteer, Schwartz decides to get a real job. He finds one in an office located on the seventh-and-a-half floor of a Manhattan tower. There he meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), and although she shows no interest in him, he is obsessed with her.

It’s there too that he finds the portal into John Malkovich’s mind, and after he has had his 15 minutes of being John Malkovich he knows that his life can never be the same. He and Maxine turn this portal into a business charging $200 for the public to have their 15 minutes of being John Malkovich.

Meanwhile, actor Malkovich playing a version of his public image is, at first, completely unaware that others are inside his head. When he finally becomes aware that something strange is going on, he investigates, ends up on the seventh-and-a-half floor and, in one of the oddest and most memorable scenes in cinema, finds out what happens when a man goes through his own portal.

Without spoiling the amazing set of surprises that this movie holds, be prepared for the weirdest love triangle (or is it a square?) that you’ve ever seen. And get ready to consider questions of identity and spirituality that shifting consciousness provokes: it is, in the words of Schwartz, a “metaphysical can of worms.”

This movie is a fable; one reviewer described it as science fiction without the science. It functions more like a jazz riff on social and philosophical themes than a straightforward film narrative. For example, the seventh-and-a-half floor where the portal is located is a hugely funny sight gag, with office workers going about their business bent over, taking for granted a bizarre and absurd condition. But then you wonder what other kinds of bizarre absurd reality now seem normal because “that’s the way things are.”

Or consider the whole idea of becoming someone else, if even for just 15 minutes. When Maxine and Craig welcome their paying public to the portal, the first customer is a man so unhappy with himself, so discontented with his life, that he will do anything to escape if even just for 15 minutes. At the other end of his experience, when he lands on the side of the New Jersey turnpike with a thump, he is thrilled, because he has experienced reality from inside someone else.

Twice in the film, first with a puppet and then with John Malkovich, Craig performs to the music of Bela Bartok a dance of despair and disillusionment. In some ways Being John Malkovich is a meditation on the despair of North American life at the end of this century. “Consciousness is a terrible curse,” says Craig, and after this century of war, destruction and genocide, who can disagree?

Into this dark, troubling landscape Christians must bring the story of the incarnation. Finding ways to enter the consciousness of people filled with despair and disillusionment is the important task of the church of Jesus Christ for the next century.

Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


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