Being John Malkovich (1999): Spike Jonze’s Original, Bizarre

Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (then better known as an actor and music-video director) burst into the American movie scene with “Being John Malkovich, an original and surreal tale.

Brilliantly executed, it is also well acted by its four actors: John Malkovich, John Cusak, Cameron Diaz, and best of all, Catherine Keener, in her first Oscar nominated role.

Working with a modest budget of about $13 million, Jonze (who also appeared in 1999 David O. Russell’s “Three Kings) cut corners where he could.  Instead of hiring thousands of extras for a scene in which Malkovich attends a big event, the director simply took his cameras to last year’s MTV Awards.

The premise is truly bizarre: How would you fee about taking a journey into the mind of John Malkovich, the brigh, eccentric character actor of  such films as “The Killing Fields” and “In The Line of Fire,” among other credits.

John Cusack stars as poor puppeteer Craig Schwartz, who, needing money, takes a temporary job as a file clerk on the seventh-and-a-half (yes, you read right) floor of a large office building.

One day, while standing behind a cabinet, Craig finds a small door that leads to the mind of actor John Malkovich (courageously played by John Malkovich himself). Craig discovers that entering the portal allows him to become John Malkovich for a while.

Sharing his idea with his beautiful but strange co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), the couple decides to charge admission for the honor and privilege of spending 15 minutes inside the actor’s head.

Malkovich, though realizing that something strange is occurring, has no power to stop—or control—access to his mind.

Among the visitors is Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, cast against type as a deglamorized ordinary femme), who takes a trip into Malkovich’s psyche.  Soon, she finds herself in love with Maxine, who has an affair with Malkovich.  Meanwhile, Maxine herself becomes infatuated with Craig and Lotte, but only when they’re all inside Malkovich.

“Being John Malkovich” marks the splashy feature debut of Spike Jonze, who previously made acclaimed music videos for Weezer, the Beastie Boys, and the Breeders, garnering him a Best Director Oscar nomination.

The main problem with this picture is that its first reel is so quirky, so offbeat, and so unconventional that it’s almost impoosible for the ensuing narrative to keep up with it.

Critics of the films charge that the film is too self-concious, a story about itself, but I think there’s more to this cool, loopey, and smart work, a pop Warholian riff on celebrity, marked by grotesque humor and extravagant narrative twists.  Just the sound of the name, John Malkovich being repeated time and again offers pleasure, not to mention the fact that Malkovich the person proved a good sport, playing one (or more) versions of his public image.

Kaufman and Jonze began a new kind of indie cinema that in the next decade will see such original works as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”



End Note



Malkovich proved to be good sports.  “I was very impressed by the writing,” Malkovich said at the time, “but I never imagined anyone being crazy enough to make it.  It’s not like the title is going to bring people out in droves.”


Oscar Nominations: 3

Director: Spike Jonze

Screenplay (Original): Charlie Kaufman

Supporting Actress: Catherine Keener

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1999, the winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Sam Mendes for “American Beauty,” which also won Original Screenplay for Alan Ball.  Angelina Jolie won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted.”



Running time: 112 Minutes.

Directed by Spike Jonze.

Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman.

Released: October 29, 1999.

DVD: May 2, 2000



John Cusack as Craig Schwartz

Cameron Diaz as Lotte Schwartz

Catherine Keener as Maxine Lund

John Malkovich as John Malkovich

Orson Bean as Dr. Lester

Mary Kay Place as Floris