‘Being John Malkovich’ Was a Head Trip—and the Best Film of 1999 - The Ringer clock menu more-arrow no yes

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Make the Case: ‘Being John Malkovich’ Was a Head Trip Masterpiece—and the Best Film of 1999

Throughout the week, The Ringer will celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of the best years in movie history and argue why some deserve to be called the best of ’99. First, we open a tiny door to get inside Spike Jonze’s first feature.

An illustration featuring John Malkovich in ‘Being John Malkovich’ Adam Villacin

Welcome to 1999 Movies Week, a celebration of one of the best years in film history. Throughout the week, The Ringer will highlight some of the year’s best, most interesting films, and in this series, make the case for why a specific movie deserves to be called that year’s best. First up is Spike Jonze’s cerebral fantasy dramedy Being John Malkovich.

And then Charlie Sheen shows up. The first hour of Being John Malkovich—Spike Jonze’s first feature film, Hollywood’s equally momentous introduction to dour-genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and without question my favorite movie of 1999 back in 1999—is a plenty psychedelic and traumatic thing. Particularly for John Malkovich himself. This sublimely bonkers movie’s first half alone will forever change the way you think about puppeteering, threesomes, personal identity, office buildings, Cameron Diaz, and the lust of the elderly. But the most shocking and delightful scene is when a terrified Malkovich turns to the only friend he can trust and the last person you’d expect.

The plot of Being John Malkovich is best explained, in an earlier scene, by a frustrated New York City puppeteer and filing clerk named Craig (played by John Cusack with terrible hair) to his office crush Maxine (a marvelously frigid Catherine Keener). “There’s a tiny door in my office, Maxine,” this breathless explanation begins. “It’s a portal. And it takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich’s eyes. And then, after about 15 minutes, you’re spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.” Maxine’s response: “Sounds great! Who the fuck is John Malkovich?” The trailer struggled, quite understandably, to get the film’s premise across while sustaining anything resembling the film’s tone.

Indeed, the movie’s look and feel is a baffling mixture of glum and whimsical, radiant and morose, imaginatively limitless and viciously claustrophobic. (Craig’s office is on floor 7½, for reasons explained in the orientation video, and thus requires employees to both crowbar the elevator door open and slouch constantly like a dour-genius screenwriter.) There are enough big ideas in Malkovich to power a weeklong film festival and enough existential angst to terrorize several. (“The nature of self,” a flailing Craig muses. “The existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?”) Suffice it to say that Craig; his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz with worse hair); and Maxine are soon entangled in a bizarre love rhombus, with Malkovich himself, playing a cartoonish but also winsomely mundane version of himself, as the unwitting, and very soon unwilling, physical vessel.

And he turns—for comfort, for protection, for solace, for advice—to the man he later affectionately refers to as Ma-Sheen.

Malkovich explains that his new girlfriend, Maxine, calls him “Lotte” during moments of intimacy, and Sheen responds just the way you hope he would: “Ouch. That is hot.” As he absorbs this surrealist tale, he asks the right questions, from “Were you stoned?” to “How hot is this babe?” He marvels at the erotic potential of “hot lesbian witches.” He has but one request: “Let me know when you’re done with her, man.” He is holding a Rubik’s Cube during this conversation. He’d have an easier time solving it than thoroughly decoding and understanding this movie. But Sheen’s got the right attitude, and thus knows better than to even try.

I would describe Sheen’s majestic cameo as “memorable,” except I’d forgotten about it. Being John Malkovich turns 20 years old in October—it was, believe it or not, a legit Oscar contender, scoring nominations (but no wins) for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (for Keener). The question of whether it has aged well is very much the wrong question. It is quite difficult, for example, to interpret, through a 2019 lens, Lotte’s immediate impulse, after her first trip through the Malkovich portal, to seek advice from her allergist about sexual-reassignment surgery. “Don’t stand in the way of my actualization as a man,” she tells her loser husband; “Suck my dick,” she later adds. You might laugh, but you will also take her seriously and regard her tenderly, especially after Craig locks her in a cage with a monkey, which I had also forgotten. This movie is way darker than I remembered, and even gnarlier intellectually. It’s still the best movie of 1999.

Also, it’s a love story. Maybe. Sort of. Eventually. “When I looked into his eyes last night,” Maxine tells Lotte, with regard to you-know-who, “I could feel you peering out.” Her icy veneer cracks, slightly. “Behind the stubble and the too-prominent brow and the male-pattern baldness, I sensed your feminine longing. And it just slew me.”

Now would be a good time to point out that John Malkovich agreeing to appear in a movie called Being John Malkovich is an act of profound kindness and bravery, and he is forever enshrined in the Good Sport Hall of Fame. He might still regret it. In 2015, he explained it to Rolling Stone this way: “I mean, in modern culture … [long pause] it’s kind of like if you get a blowjob from the wrong person, then your life becomes a blowjob.” If the movie had been a bomb, he’d literally have a bomb named after him; if it had been an outlandish blockbuster, he’d just look like a showoff. In reality, the movie was a very modest box-office success, prestigious but not ubiquitous. Malkovich’s gambled paid off but didn’t pay out too much. Also: “I was a little bit involved in casting Charlie Sheen as my best friend, which [pauses] there was some reticence about that, but it seemed to me a good idea.”

Over the course of this film, Malkovich munches on toast, orders bath towels, endures small talk with multiple civilians who can’t actually name any of his movies, smooches with Keener at great length, gets in a bar fight, does a puppet-ballet dance routine while wearing only a towel, fires off an extended and fantastic John Cusack impression, and delivers the line “That portal is mine, and it must be sealed forever, for the love of God” with stentorian zeal, shortly after entering the Malkovich portal himself, where this happens. He certainly appears to be enjoying himself. But he was correct in pointing out, in that 2015 interview, that Being John Malkovich’s true stars, both then and now, are its rookie director and its rookie screenwriter, which does not happen often in Hollywood, then or now.

Jonze was already a minor sensation thanks to a run of transcendent MTV videos, from Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” to Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” to the Chemical Brothers’ “Elektrobank.” Few artists in the late ’90s, in any medium, worked harder to make total surrealism feel comfortably mainstream, and most of those other artists worked with him directly. For a debut movie, Malkovich is vivid in its visual glumness; its subtler touches (I love the way Malkovich slaps away Craig’s attempted handshake) land just as surely as all the metaphysical slapstick. You somehow never get tired of watching people fall into that ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike.

Jonze also gets two world-class Playing Dowdy performances from the respective stars of multiple blockbuster romantic comedies. Pair this movie with 2000’s much sunnier but still prickly High Fidelity for Cusack’s master class in turning his famous charm into something pathetic and needy and hostile. And Diaz, despite looking like Roseanne Roseannadanna, has phenomenal chemistry with everyone, including the monkey. Together, they deliver elegantly awkward lines like “What is this strange power that Malkovich exudes?” (that’s Diaz) and “I could use Malkovich’s existing notoriety to launch my own puppeteering career!” (that’s Cusack) with an all-universe comic timing that only underscores the tragedy.

That tragedy, and elegance, and awkwardness is all Charlie Kaufman’s. As he would explain to Vulture in 2015, writing this movie was not merely a matter of plugging in any semi-famous actor’s name: “With Malkovich, it isn’t as simple to me as ‘What if you found a portal into someone else’s brain?’ It’s ‘What if you found a portal into John Malkovich’s brain?’ That was what worked. That’s what I thought was funny. It wouldn’t have worked, in my mind, with anyone else.” And Kaufman specialized in absurdist, and increasingly despairing, fairy tales that could never have been written, or even stoned-edly conceived of, by anyone else. Jonze and Kaufman would reteam for 2002’s Adaptation, a dazzlingly meta spin on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief in which Meryl Streep plays Orlean and Nicolas Cage plays … Charlie Kaufman. (And his twin brother.) I remember the line “a little push-push in the bush” very well.

From there, Jonze went on to further successes that can hardly be described as conventional—2009’s Where the Wild Things Are is full of Big Feelings, and 2013’s Her was rife with Big Ideas. (It also won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) But both are Kaufmanesque—vibrant and strange and occasionally, unapologetically wrenching—in ways that nonetheless pale in comparison to, say, Kaufman’s own directorial debut, 2008’s exquisitely bleak Synecdoche, New York, whose last line I also remember and wish I didn’t. That one thrilled critics but didn’t make much money; same with 2015’s stop-motion opus Anomalisa.

It is mostly a compliment, and mostly a relief, that he mostly turned out to be too weird for Hollywood. Just don’t expect Kaufman to like it. “I’ve also seen critics say ‘This is a Charlie Kaufman–type movie, and so-and-so made it,’” he told Indiewire in 2016. “And it’s like … why do they get to make Charlie Kaufman movies and I don’t? I think about that all the time.”

Accept no substitutes, but also accept that even Jonze and Kaufman will most likely never provide a worthy substitute to Being John Malkovich themselves. It’s awfully hard, even 20 years later, to find a movie even half as bizarre that was also even half as successful. Among the few contenders is Jordan Peele’s 2017 monolith Get Out, which has enough conspicuous overlap, from the metaphysical body-snatching to the regal presence of Catherine Keener, that there’s an elaborate theory that it’s secretly a Malkovich sequel. Peele’s response: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s true.” But as far as this singular and stubbornly inimitable movie is concerned, following it up at all is impossible.