Being John Malkovich

January 12, 2014 : 10:33 pm | by Ben Elliot

Many John Malkovichs shown above

It’s hard to say what Being John Malkovich is really about. I guess that’s often the case with well written films and this is certainly one of them. It’s about being married but in love with another who doesn’t love you back. It’s about what it means to be a puppateer, an actor or, for that matter, a writer. It’s about what it would mean to occupy another’s skin emotionally and even plays at what the metaphysical implications of such phenomena might be. Yet Kaufman (writer) is able to navigate all of these subjects daftly through one of the strangest plots ever to achieve success in Hollywood.

With Being John Malkovich, Kaufman wrote one of the most structurally inventive screen-plays of our time, yet, rather than feeling enigmatic or foreign to viewers, it’s fun. The story is hard to summarize, as you might imagine, but I’ll try here for the sake of whoever still hasn’t seen it. Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer who cannot find work, is forced to get a job as a kind of organizer at a company called Lester Corp on the 7 1/2 floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building in New York City. While working here he both falls in love with a crude and harsh woman named Maxine and finds a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in a crawl-space behind a filing cabinet. Hopefully this description was enough to intrigue you into finally watching the film and if not then just see it anyway and I bet you’ll like it.

Form is truly a game for Kaufman and one that he plays well, as has been exemplified through films like this, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and especially Adaptation. He is able to create stories that at once defy and employ conventions of the craft. Director Spike Jonze also seems to have been a great partner for him. Jonze got incredible performances from Diaz, Cusack and particularly Malkovich himself. The story was realized visually with precision and inventiveness that was able to get out of the way of an incredible script.

It is incredibly rare for a film to garner more success for its writer than its director, but such was the case here and for those who have seen it, it is unsurprising. Charlie Kaufman is one of the few writers in Hollywood today who is recognized by name as well as most directors. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he wrote an entire screenplay about himself (Adaptation) but even before then, most people who knew anything about film knew who he was. The film is able to work through ideas of identity, love, fear of death, loneliness and other frightening terrain without ever feeling preachy or meandering. Another feature of Kaufman’s work, perhaps the greatest of them, is that while one viewing is enough to understand the basics of his films, they still has more to offer those who come back for second or third viewings. So, with that, I encourage those of you who haven’t seen the film to do so and those of you who have to go back and watch it again.

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