Being John Malkovich

“Consciousness is a terrible curse.” When Craig (John Cusack) makes this sage observation to his buddy, the chimp Elijah, they’re watching daytime TV. Craig is home because he’s unemployed, and he’s despairing because no one will hire him as a puppeteer. Elijah’s home because he’s on leave from the pet store, suffering from depression. As Craig sighs heavily, Elijah looks back at him solemnly, then flips his lips back in a simian grin. It may be true, as Craig assumes, that Elijah lacks consciousness. But then again, maybe Craig has it wrong, and consciousness is not simply given or not, a human condition. Maybe consciousness is instead a matter of performance and confidence, a state that might be earned or seized, a state that can be desired and pursued.

Such desire and pursuit form the premise of celebrity culture as we know it. It’s the reason you read Premiere and Vibe, watch Fanatic and Access Hollywood, or know anything about what Gwyneth Paltrow wore to the Oscars. It’s also the reason you occasionally think that you’re a failure because you haven’t yet achieved your life’s ambition, even if you’re not quite sure what that ambition is. Celebrity culture shows and sells you who you want to be or might be, if only you could. Celebrity culture shows and sells you consciousness in and as any number of sparkling, unachievable selves.

The new movie Being John Malkovich is about celebrity culture, as it inspires, frustrates and pummels you into such desire. It offers its protagonists and you the chance to imagine being a celebrity, with one small hitch: the only celebrity you can be is John Malkovich. This is not such a terrible limitation, given the actor’s reputation for self-confidence, diffidence, ingenuity, and sheer nerve. But all this doesn’t make him a desirable state of consciousness. No. As the film demonstrates in several instances when Malkovich is praised by civilians for his performance as a jewel thief, in a movie he never made, most people don’t know him for his work or his talent. They know him because he’s famous. And if given the chance, they’d want to be him simply because he is who he is, John Malkovich, movie star.

The route to being Mr. Malkovich is unsurprisingly bizarre, which is to say, it’s as incredible as it has to be. According to the movie, this route begins at a small doorway located behind a filing cabinet in an office on the four foot high seventh-and-a-half floor of a Manhattan office building (for which the running joke among the perpetually hunched-over employees is, “Low overhead!”).

Once you pop through this portal, you’re on a hell of a trip — propelled by whooshing effects and bouncing along goopy walls — straight into the head of John Malkovich, the real John Malkovich, who plays an exaggerated, loop-de-loop version of himself. After fifteen minutes of looking through his eyes, whatever he happens to be doing — showering, running lines, buying monogrammed towels from a catalogue over the phone — you’re summarily ejected and dumped onto the muddy, brushy side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Conveniently, the discoverer of this spectacularly life-changing device is someone in dire need of a life change. Craig is a puppeteer by training and inclination (i.e., he’s manipulative), but, unable to find the work he feels he deserves, he takes a temp position as a filing clerk on that seventh and a half floor. Feeling exasperated with his marriage to a pet shop employee Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who crams their apartment full of creeping, crawling patients, Craig is instantly mesmerized by a coworker, the quietly audacious, sexily self-assured Maxine (Catherine Keener). The portal seems the perfect cover for spending time with Max, who decides they should form a company, JM, Inc., and charge eager clients $200 each for fifteen minute mini-adventures, being John Malkovich.

Written by first-timer Charlie Kaufman and directed by the ideally surreal-minded Spike Jonze (the erstwhile music video director who has recently been honing his acting chops by starring in 3 Kings and Fatboy Slim’s self-consciously eccentric video for “Praise You”), the movie actually turns increasingly ridiculous following this set-up. It turns out that Craig’s employer, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), has been nurturing his own obsession with John Malkovich (which he turns into a shrine at his home, where hundreds of photos and a carefully constructed time line note all important dates in the star’s life) and that Charlie Sheen — playing himself with a hilarious swagger and spiky, just-woke-up-looking hair-do — is a great pal of Malkovich’s, someone he to whom he turns for romantic advice.

Such lunacy is par for this film’s course, and made visual by Lance Acord’s creatively demented cinematography. Alternately bewildering and charming, Being John Malkovich doesn’t spend much time building characters or situations. Rather, it plops you down in a morass of rowdy, needy souls, all vying for dominance for the few minutes they can manage it. Initially, Craig wants Max, Max wants Malkovich, and Lotte, after taking a spin inside Malkovich when he has dinner with Max, finds that she wants Max too. Eventually, who wants whom changes a bit, and even Elijah gets a chance to show how conscious he can be, sans portal, remembering the traumatic moment when he and his family are swept up by archetypally evil human chimp-nappers). In other words, everyone has a changing identity and self-understanding, and these changes compel the plot’s looney-tunes action.

At first, Lotte thinks this means she’s a transsexual, but then she rejects this conventional and limited definition of identity (self = body), and embraces the strangeness of sharing consciousness and body with someone else (as she puts it, “It’s sorta sexy that John Malkovich has a portal; it’s like a vagina, like a feminine side”). This philosophical fine point doesn’t preclude the fact that Max and Lotte have amazing sex when Lotte’s being Malkovich: as Max asserts after dinner at Craig and Lotte’s apartment, she’s unmoved by the former but quite sensationally “smitten” with Lotte being Malkovich, because their literally doubled desire for her shows through his eyes when they look at her.

At first flattered by Max’s erratic cravings for him (Lotte and Max make furtive dates, planning on the off-hours when they’ll meet via Malkovich’s body), Malkovich himself (whoever this might be) figures out that she’s even more strange than he can take. So he dons a disguise (an “I [heart] New York” baseball cap and dark glasses) and follows her to the office, past the long line of people waiting to pay their money to be him. In one of the film’s most delirious and wildly operatic scenes, he confronts Max and Craig, demanding to go through the portal. Inside himself, everything for him is hyper Malkovich: everyone in his head — which takes the form of an upscale restaurant — has his face, the only language possible is the word “Malkovich,” repeated incessantly and inflected every which way.

Clearly, as Craig observes, the portal is “a metaphysical can of worms,” raising a series of perplexing questions, about consciousness, performance, and desire. Some clients become addicted to the “John Malkovich ride” and return again and again; others see it as a brief departure from their apparent norms; and still others, like Lotte, see in it a way to become more complete versions of themselves. If there is a lesson to be learned, it may be that being who you are is always chaotic and irrational, that consciousness is both a reckless ride and a matter of discipline and faith. But it may be that there’s no lesson to be learned. And that would make as much sense as anything else.