Part 2 Of An Ongoing Series
There is truth, and there are lies. And art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.
John Malkovich as John Cusack as Craig Schwartz as John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich
John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has plenty of sick desperation in his laugh during the first act of Being John Malkovich. We hear it when he flirts with Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the out-of-his-league co-worker he wants to have an affair with. She’ll rip his pathetic ass down like it’s her favorite hobby, and he’ll often respond with that sick, desperate, 1999 laughter.
It’s not just because Craig’s intimidated by Maxine. It’s also because Craig’s a lot like so many other notable 1999 protagonists: dispirited, frustrated, adrift, unfulfilled. (See also Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space, The Matrix, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, the ensemble of Magnolia.) Like his own puppet, he’s stuck in a “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.”
Funny thing is, Craig’s the protagonist in the most humorous of all those other movies- maybe the most hilarious 1999 movie that isn’t South Park– and yet he suffers the most tragic fate. And that sums up why, if I were forced to choose the best 1999 movie, Being John Malkovich would barely edge out Three Kings and Fight Club. Being John Malkovich is so great it baffled me with its greatness the first time I saw it, and its greatness still baffles me to this day.
It’s the type of movie you’d think would spawn a decade’s worth of imitators, like Pulp Fiction or There’s Something About Mary. Only it didn’t, really. Its fine balance of surrealism and poignancy is so perfect, it’s like the world’s filmmakers simply stood back in awe of Being John Malkovich and were like, “We’re just gonna let Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze handle this shit from now on.”
If the movie has spearheaded one trend of the past few years, it’s the one where actors play comically unflattering caricatures of themselves. (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kirstie Alley, Matt LeBlanc, James Van Der Beek, half the people who’ve appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm.) Of course, none of those actors went nearly as far down the rabbit hole as John Horatio Malkovich.
Then again, maybe other filmmakers will eventually get around to imitating the rest of Malkovich once they’ve finally finished processing it. There’s a galaxy of ideas in this movie, all zipping by at madcap speed, and a lot of those ideas really started to mushroom in the new millennium. It’s not merely about “celebrity,” it’s about the desire to attain celebrity, the emptiness of celebrity, the misguided sense of entitlement we often feel we have over celebrities. It’s not merely about the quest for immortality, it’s about how the quest for immortality is not necessarily a bad thing- although it can definitely be a very bad thing. It’s not just about the search for identity, it’s about fucking identity until identity forgets what gender it used to be.
Most of all, though, Being John Malkovich is about Craig Schwartz, and how not to end up like him. That means doing your damnedest never to drive yourself crazy from unrequited love. It’s very bad for the skin.