Every now and then a wonderful work of fiction can be doomed, at least among certain audiences, by a strange title. I spent months ignoring the hype around “The Da Vinci Code” (the book) because I thought it was some kind of art history analysis, rather than a uniquely thrilling mystery. I never watched “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” because it sounds like a dry TV film rather than what’s likely a pretty full-bodied drama featuring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. And I’ve always thought that few titles could sound less interesting than “The Constant Gardener,” which incidentally is a very interesting film. But the category of works of fiction with strange or misleading titles has to be headlined by “Being John Malkovich,” which is why it seems a good film to work up a retro review for.
I’ve heard people ask if this film is a biopic on John Malkovich, with the unspoken follow-up question why do we care about John Malkovich again? dangling in the air. And for a while, I avoided the film for this very reason.
The truth, of course, is that the film has very little to do with the actual John Malkovich, and instead merely uses him as an example (albeit a brilliant one) of an interesting mind into which ordinary people might want to delve. The film, in all of its glorious quirkiness, is being featured on the Picturebox streaming service online, so it’s quite accessible at the moment for those interested in checking it out. This particular streaming site cycles its collection in and out, but the film will be available through June and most of July for viewers. But why tune in?
The main reason is that this is simply one of the most unique and inventive films, really of all time. After all, when Roger Ebert starts a review with “What an endlessly inventive film this is!” you know you’re in for a treat! The film stars John Cusack as Craig Schwartz, an unemployed street puppeteer looking for a break in life, and mired in an unfulfilling relationship with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). An ordinary film’s simple synopsis may end there, but in “Being John Malkovich,” the action doesn’t really get started until Craig gets a job as a file clerk and is placed on floor 7 1/2 of a building, in close proximity to the attractive and alluring Maxine (Catherine Keener).
On floor 7 1/2, Craig ultimately discovers a small, mysterious door behind a filing cabinet, and finds that it leads to a portal that transports him into the mind of the actor John Malkovich – who plays himself, or at least a version of himself. From that point on the film becomes a brilliantly tangled and surreal exploration of what’s essentially the ultimate puppeteering adventure, with different key characters controlling and manipulating Malkovich to support their own agendas. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds, but smoother and more intelligent than you can imagine without watching yourself. The performances from the leading cast members are extraordinary, the premise is one-of-a-kind, and the action keeps you guessing, laughing, and leaning in closer the whole way through.
A few years ago, The Guardian did a write-up of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s retelling of the process of having the “Being John Malkovich” script approved, and it offers some insight into how we as an audience enjoy the film. The way he tells it, Kaufman took some bland, everyday inspiration and spun it into an odd tale that ultimately sort of stumbled into becoming a major film. And that’s exactly what happens when we watch it: it starts out normal, takes a turn to something stranger,