Popcorn Love: John Malkvoich in Being John Malkovich
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 23, 2008
“Shut up, you overrated sack of shit!”
First off, apologies for the erratic and qualitatively lacking posting as of late–I’m on Spring Break, which should be more of an excuse than it is, but since I’m not off trapsing around Cancun or Miami or Saudi Arabia or wherever it is the kids go these days, the best excuse I can come up with is that I had my wisdom teeth taken out this week, and when I’m not seething in pain and frustration at not being able to eat dumplings and pizza, I’m half asleep from the medication. Plus, all I’ve been watching this week has been NCAA stuff, and since I don’t even enjoy reading other writers’ thoughts on those, I figure there’s no way you guys would wanna hear mine.
I did manage to snag a viewing of Being John Malkovich for the first time in a few years, though. I was reminded of what a weird fucking movie it is–even much more than people give it credit for being. Too many people focus on the movie’s premise when discussing its strangeness, but while it’s certainly an odd conceit to have a movie centered around an unexplained portal into a random actor’s brain that spits you out onto the New Jersey turnpike after 15 minutes, once they start rolling with it, it’s one of the least weird things about it. There’s Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz reversing their logical roles as frumpy housewife and devilish temptress, respectively. There’s the weird subplot of the Schwartz’s chimp, who has to get over his repressed childhood trauma to bail out Lottie at a pivotal momeont. There’s Malkovich’s agent, who keeps calling his receptionist a cunt and bats not an eye at Malkvoich’s claim that he wants to give up the acting life for his puppeteering pursuitsA (getting one of the movie’s best lines, “No problem, poof, you’re a puppeteer”). There’s the fact that there’s not a single really sympathetic character in the whole movie. There’s the weirdly dark tone the movie takes halfway through, continuing through the last scene, one of the most unsettling in recent memory.
And of course, there’s Malkovich himself. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of a better self-performance in movie history, especially not one on whom the main plot is so reliant. There’s definitely no other actor that would’ve worked better in the character–Malkovich is the perfect choice because everyone sort of knows who he is, but he has no definitive roles and no even particularly definitive characteristics (as evidenced by the fact that no one can seem to remember a thing he’s done besides “that jewel thief movie”). It’s certainly a technically impressive performance, as Malkovich not only has to play himself, but John Cusack as himself, and a whole room of random people as himself (the legendary “Malkovich Malkovich” scene, which surely ranks as one of the great moments in late-20th century comedy).
But the thing I like best about Malkovich’s performance is how amazingly self-effacing it is. Malkovich deserved some sort of Honorary Good Sport Oscar for this one–no other self-performance has asked an actor to portray such an unflattering version of himself, a guy whose most exciting daily rituals include reading lines into a tape recorder and ordering carpet samples over the phone, who appears to take himself too seriously and has a flair for the over-dramatic, and even has several disturbingly awkward repressed memories, as evidenced by Maxine and Lottie’s tumble through his subconscious at the end of the movie. My favorite exchange in the movie comes when Maxine shows up at his place and waits for Lottie to jump through the portal before she jumps Malkovich, so she tries to make conversation:
“So…do you like being…an actor?”
“Yes…it’s very rewarding.”
It’s the dryest, boringest, most self-important sort of answer he could give, and it’s absolutely brilliant for his role in the movie. It’s also why it’s so hilarious to finally see him animated once he catches on to Maxine and Craig’s plan (smartly incognito in glasses and an “I Love NY” hat), yelling “IT’S MY HEAD, SCHWARTZ! IT’S MY HEAD! I WILL SEE YOU IN COURT!!” Even better is his reaction seconds later, when a car rolls by and someone yells “Hey Malkovich, think fast!” and pelts him with a drink or something (“FFFUCK!“) He spends the movie playing slapstick not only at his character’s expense, but at his real life persona’s expense. Not many actors would be up to it, and fewer still would nail it quite this spot on.
Of course, this will probably end up being the movie that shatters his anonymity forever and finally gives John Malkovich a definitive legacy. Ironic, but hard earned well deserved.