498. Being John Malkovich

★★★★

The story usually goes one of two ways.

  1. During a nighttime shoot, an unidentified truck passenger chucked a half-empty can at the back of John Malkovich’s head with the throwing accuracy of Clayton Kershaw. Intentionally meant as an act of minor battery, the rogue aluminum hurler’s crime transformed into one of those proverbial Hollywood foot-in-the-door fables just because he cursed four immortal words: “Hey Malkovich, think fast!” Since he spoke, the “Being John Malkovich” crew had to cough up a thousand dollars and change in compensation to the midnight thrower, who was now less a vandal and more a legitimate extra according to Screen Actors Guild guidelines.
  2. The can thrower had always been an extra, but was never supposed to speak. The four words of impromptu dialogue proved to elevate the scene’s comedic value to a higher level, and said performer was granted with an even higher check to comply with guidelines for extra speaking roles. Some people telling this version of the story add the little cherry on top that the extra got his SAG card because of the incident.

But according to Mr. Malkovich himself, in a Reddit AMA almost two decades since the movie was released, the can thrower was not some mischievous rogue intent on disobeying shooting schedules and recycling procedures, but the writing partner of John Cusack. The scene as you see it was written as such in the script, and Mr. Cusack’s co-writing colleague was confident enough in his own chucking ability to volunteer. Turns out he nailed the back of Malkovich’s head on his very first try.

Malkovich’s explanation may not be true, and neither might the other two stories. But how appropriate it is that a movie that delves so much into the self, identity, and consciousness lost the ability to streamline its own narrative. A harmless anecdote was hijacked by unseen forces and became so mainstream and lifelike that we couldn’t separate truth from doubt.

Released in 1999, “Being John Malkovich” is still the leading film that acts as a dissection of Descartes while blending the best of Monty Python double entendres and Abbott and Costello twists of tongue. No other film makes us question the nature of our own thinking and identity in a feverishly, hilarious manner. It’s unabashed creativity serves as testament both to the power of one individual’s idea and the power of collaboration to bring that idea to life.

We start off with Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), an uninspired artistic oaf who wallows in his lack of puppeteer success while refusing to get a real job at the behest of his timid wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). With her frizzy hair and warm empathy towards all creatures, she’s a mother nature incarnate, her love for Craig flickering and fading through time but her need to take care of him ever luminous. Craig does relent to Lotte’s whims and gets a job filing papers for some peculiar office filing company nudged in-between the 7th and 8th floors of a Manhattan office building.

But here, Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener). She has the aggressive, take charge masculinity that Craig has no reserves of, and the unbridled femininity missing behind Lotte’s messy bangs. We never find out what she actually does at this office or the names or identities of the friends/lovers she speaks to on the phone, but she remains the ultimate object and pursuit of Craig and Lotte’s whims. And when we actually get to the point of the Malkovich tunnel being discovered, it’s less about becoming the “Con Air” actor and more a vessel for Craig and Lotte to thieve their priceless Maxine jewel.

It’s no coincidence that Maxine is the only character in the movie to never enter the Malkovich tunnel once. She seems fairly content with her life and has no need for the escapism or swapped identities such tunnel could provide. The longer Maxine rests on the outside of Malkovich’s body, the more she can ultimately puppet whomever’s inside. And as we watch as they fight over the ethical, romantic and legal complications of fucking around (literally) in another man’s head, Charlie Kaufman’s script and Spike Jonze’s offbeat direction keep us in a steady trance at every turn.

What’s most remarkable about “Being John Malkovich” isn’t the existential queries that plague you once finishing the film (“Is Lotte technically a ‘dad?'” “Is Craig really experiencing Malkovich if he can’t hear his thoughts?”) Instead, it’s the colorful characters who equally endear us and push us afar with their off-putting behavior. Their mangy hair, their unlikable mannerisms, Craig, Lotte, Maxine and Malkovich all grotesque but unquestionably gregarious in their own way. “Being John Malkovich” rests on the thesis that no life is truly better than our own, but our shared flawed psyches will never allow us to admit that. And as we continue digging for truth in other people’s heads, content that we can always land  our perennial second choice of John Malkovich if all else goes awry, we can’t help but wonder if we even had a first choice of better life to begin with.

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