(Originally written September 1, 2008)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is in love with the bizarre. Whether it is the self-reflexive postmodernism of Adaptation. or the mental map of a breakup that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman loves to pervert conventional storytelling to tell unique stories about how people interact with their own ideas. Unfortunately, he had not quite perfected this skill when he wrote the 1999 film Being John Maklkovich.
Being John Malkovich is playful, and it has a great performance from none other than John Malcovich himself, but it lacks the human touch that makes his previously mentioned efforts so engaging. Movie characters did not get much love in 1999, the same year that American Beauty engaged moviegoers across the nation with its disdain of humanity. Both of these 1999 films have absolutely pathetic characters, and as they struggle with their circumstances, I had a difficult time caring about what happened to them. John Cusack plays the puppeteer Craig Schwartz in a way that gives the character the obsession that brings him to ruin but none of the passion that would drive him in the first place. He’s unlikable, and when he meets his ultimate fate, it’s haunting, but I really couldn’t care less.
While Kaufman would eventually learn to create surreal story elements with inherent thematic questions, he forces questions of identity and sexuality into the story of Being John Malkvovich. After Cusack and Cameron Diaz have been in the body of Malkovich, their conversations are philosophical but ultimately unrealistic. Would someone as average as these characters really be thinking so deeply about being in the body of a movie star? Kaufman already made these characters incapable of human feelings, so why would he give them such insight unless they were mere devices to inject meaning into an otherwise masturbatory exercise in art?
There are some brilliant sequences, including Diaz chasing Catherine Keener through the subconscious of Malkovich—different fragments of the subconscious blend together to create a riveting backdrop for a violent lover’s quarrel. However, there are times where Kaufman gets caught up in his own cuteness and goes a little too far with the bizarre shtick—a world full of John Malkovich clones? A scene as pathetic as the Johnny Depp hallucination in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Malkovich’s trip through his own mind is a disappointing. Kaufman had a chance to give people an exciting vision of what it is like to enter one’s own head, and I can’t help but think that he could have done better. That’s my key issue with this film. Being John Malkvovich is probably a much better film than I make it out to be, but Kaufman would go on to write absolute masterpieces, and I could not diminish their significance by being uncritical of this film that is little more than a stepping stone to greater things.