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Being John Malkovich

Entry updated 3 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1999). Gramercy Pictures presents a Propaganda Films/Single Cell Pictures production. Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Cast includes John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener and John Malkovich. 112 minutes. Colour.

A professionally thwarted puppeteer (Cusack) takes a job in an idiosyncratic office where he discovers a portal which gives fifteen-minute access into the head of a real-life actor, John Malkovich (1953-    ), who plays himself; surreality ensues, as an initially slight cluster of comedic whimsies slowly mutates into an outstandingly inventive series of philosophically ponderable paradoxes of Identity, modulating up through a series of different Thought Experiments in Identity Transfer, in a plot fecund with twists and Metaphysical surprises. Access to Malkovich's mind is marketed as a commercial enterprise to those who want to "be someone else"; a polymorphous transbisexual love triangle develops around rival stowaways in Malkovich's mind; Malkovich discovers the operation and enters his own mind into a world populated entirely by replicas of himself; the puppeteer uses his expertise to take full-time control of Malkovich's body and in it live the successful life he has sought and missed; finally it emerges that one of the other characters is a body-hopping parasite who has been preparing Malkovich as the next "vessel" not just for himself but for an entire party of identity piggybackers in quest of Immortality, while the hero winds up poignantly trapped in the infant body of the daughter raised by his wife (Diaz) and their shared lover (Keener), from which he in turn is destined for eviction by the Malkovich-hosted Hive Mind.

Kaufman's extraordinary breakout project, which was also an impressively surefooted feature debut for video director Jonze, is one of the very few films to bear no sensible resemblance to anything that had come before it. Instantly establishing Kaufman's distinctive brand in melancholic metaphysical comedy, it presented the first iteration of what would become his signature narrative of frustrated artists sucked into and consumed by their own creations – a scenario replayed in Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008), where screenwriting and theatre respectively occupy the role here taken by puppetry. Like Groundhog Day (1993), it owes its status as a benchmark exploration of canonical sf themes to the excision of an originally supernatural rationale: early drafts were still more extravagantly fantastic, explaining the psychic portal as the result of a deal with the devil (against whom the hero performed a showstopping climactic duel with colossal puppets, culminating in an apocalyptic finale in which the devil possesses the world through recursive marionettism). The performances, direction, and bizarre scatter jokes are extraordinarily assured for such a mould-busting project from first-time filmmakers. Its success enabled the greenlighting of an early Kaufman script, the more overtly science-fictional Human Nature (2001), which Jonze did not direct, and which tanked. [NL]


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