Puppetry is control. So are acting, filing, and pet care. Each in its own way signals an attempt to make sense of the chaos that is lived experience, to grab hold of it and make it do what you want. And each, in “Being John Malkovich,” director Spike Jonze’s and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating mind-meld, fails spectacularly.
Out today on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, with all the usual sundry goodies, “Malkovich” manages, in all its strangeness, to be both a comedy of sex and identity on the Shakespearean model and a faintly haunting tale of desperation. A randy secretary with bad hearing — “I’m not banging her if that’s what you’re thinking,” her boss says, a propos of nothing — bumps up against the score’s foreboding downward scales and an increasing sense that things are going to end badly. It takes a certain kind of demented genius to make film harmony from this sort of discord, and both Jonze and Kaufman fit the bill admirably.
Craig and Lotte Schwartz (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) are suffering through a blandly unhappy marriage — there are creepy puppets; there’s a chimpanzee with daddy issues — when Craig discovers a portal into the body of the actor John Malkovich. Before long, Craig and a co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), are charging people $200 a pop to take Malkovich for a spin, and the actor becomes a refuge for the depressed, the repressed, the obsessed, and the unrequited — particularly Craig and Lotte.
For all the well-deserved praise heaped on Jonze and Kaufman, then and since, their wild eccentricity works only with actors firing on all cylinders. Having last seen the film years ago, I could still remember the way Keener grabs hold of the proceedings with a heavy sigh, then commands Craig, Lotte, and the audience by shifting mercilessly between flirtatiousness and humiliation. Even when Maxine’s unpleasantness subsides, Keener makes you feel as if you were wrong for not seeing it coming. Malkovich is all the more impressive for being less showy: somehow, he makes his metaperformance — playing himself, playing other people playing him — look effortless.
The ensemble slowly builds a head of steam and then hurtles forward, capped by a rollicking chase sequence through Malkovich’s subconscious that Kaufman would use again, in slightly altered form, in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” No matter. It’s a good enough idea to be used twice, as are many of the zany details in “Malkovich,” from Diaz’s uncontrollable frizz to a satirical informational video that Craig watches early on.
In the end, though, the film succeeds in spite of, and not because of, its weird factor. When you strip away the excess, you’re left with a simple story of four people — the actor, the geek, his wife, and their lover — exerting control, losing it, grasping after it, surrendering to it. “Malkovich,” like Malkovich, is just the vessel, and anyway the kind of control Craig seeks when he pulls his puppet’s strings is illusory at best, and possibly even ruinous. Craig knows it: as he tells Malkovich when he demands to enter the portal, “that would pale in comparison to the actual experience.”