Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out of work puppeteer who lives with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) in their New York apartment, and she gently suggests that maybe he could find a job that didn't involve puppetry, although he is reluctant to give up on his muse. Nevertheless, after an encounter on the street where he was "busking" with his marionettes and beaten up yet again for simulating sexual passion in puppet form, he decides that he could use the extra money. Therefore it is with heavy heart he traipses along to floor seven-and-a-half of the Mertin Flemmer building to get hired as a filing clerk - but you'll never guess what he finds there.
When Being John Malkovich was first released, even those not impressed by it complimented the film on its originality, as nothing as way out as this had ever been staged with such big stars and with such ambition. This was no blockbuster, but a ready made cult movie written by Charlie Kaufman, a man who would make his mark on the next decade with a run of defiantly idiosyncratic works that had as their preoccupation the whole "you can't always get what you want" problem which afflicted his characters. We could see where he was headed from this, with everyone chronically unsatisfied, and getting a taste of what might make them happier only makes them suffer more.
But wait, this is a comedy, isn't it? That's the description after all, and there are a few very funny scenes in this, but after a while the encroaching despair that is about as far from fantastical and wondrous as it's possible to get takes over. There are still giggles, but for such a wacky premise Being John Malkovich doesn't half go out of its way to depress you, especially if you take the side of the needy protagonist, played by Cusack as a nervy, pretentious no-hoper who gets his shot at glory in a manner hardly anyone will be able to recognise, and winds up trapped by his own ambition and how far it has led him from the success he craved. So if you regard Craig as the hero, you're going to leave this in a dejected mood.
If you don't, that means you take the side of his new work colleague, the caustically unsentimental Maxine (Catherine Keener), a formidable woman who Craig decides is now the love of his life and never mind that he's already married and more importantly, that Maxine sees him as utterly pathetic. But he has a trump card, and that is the little door he finds in his office behind which is a tunnel, a portal into the mind of the famous actor John Malkovich. Apparently the real Malkovich resisted taking a role in this for a while, but it's hard to see why as not only does he come across as a damn good sport, he is absolutely ideal, just at the right level of celebrity, balanced between his serious work and his slightly camp demeanour that makes him ripe for parody.
Oddly, Kaufman doesn't turn the fictional Malkovich into a caricature, and by the end you have found yourself feeling genuinely sorry for him as it turns out he is one of the writer's losers as well, in spite of his professional success. He could easily have sounded as ridiculous as anything does through repetition, but when the public are being charged two hundred dollars to enter his mind for fifteen minutes, he cannot comprehend what is happening until the trio of Craig, Maxine and Lotte start playing out their destructive love games through him. Maxine finds she is only attracted to Lotte when she feels her presence behind new boyfriend Malkovich's eyes, but then Craig begins to take greater control and she finds she likes him too - but only in the possessive state the portal affords. In truth, the film is an awkward one and Kaufman explains far too much in his attempts to bring events to a conclusion, but it's a work that stays in the mind through that originality, and even more its eccentric bleakness. Music by Carter Burwell.
Real-name Adam Spiegel, Jonze first made his name as the director of some of the most notable music videos of the 90s, including The Beastie Boys' 70s cop pastiche Sabotage, Bjork's It's Oh So Quiet and Fatboy Slim's mall-dancing Praise You (in which he also starred). Jonze made his feature debut with the brilliantly bizarre Being John Malkovich in 1999, following it up with equally strange Adaptation in 2002. He also directed an all-dancing Christopher Walken in the video to Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, and co-starred in David O. Russell's war comedy Three Kings. His opening out of the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are was widely admired, as was his computer love story Her. Jonze is also the heir to multi-million dollar Spiegel mail-order catalogue business.