Being John Malkovich is such an iconic film that the premise hardly needs re-telling. The protagonist, a depressed puppeteer named Craig, takes up a temp job in a depressingly ordinary office that is only distinguishable by its miserably low ceilings. Soon, he discovers a wormhole leading directly into the actor John Malkovich’s mind. Craig, played by John Cusack, and his equally miserable wife, Lotte, played by Cameron Diaz, react to this situation with a certain amount of fascination. They become addicted to the experience of inhabiting John Malkovich, even if they can only do so in short bursts. Their collaborator, on the other hand, Maxine, played by Catherine Keener, sees a business opportunity and begins to “rent” John Malkovich out for $200 a session.
Maxine is a materialist at her core. She’s driven by two things and to things alone: sex and profit. For this reason, she becomes an object of obsession both for Craig and for his wife Lotte. They lust after her aura of self-possession — her seeming ability to get exactly what she wants when she wants it.
In contrast to Maxine, Lotte and her husband cast withering silhouettes. Lotte’s padded-shoulder jackets and larger-than-life hair belie a meek personality. She is power-suited without power and it is only through inhabiting John Malkovich that she experiences authority. Lotte’s challenge is that she mistakenly aligns authority with maleness — a belief that she eventually overcomes. Craig, on the other hand, overcomes nothing. He believes he can inhabit Malkovich permanently and would, in fact, prefer to do so. Ironically, this low self-conception leads him toward destruction. The mistaken belief that happiness must be claimed (rather than discovered) is Craig’s tragedy.
Through an aesthetics of uncertainty, Being John Malkovich positions itself firmly within the borderlands of reality and fantasy. The beauty of this film is in its strange familiarity, presenting a world that is odd in its details but not so far from our own. Much like reality, uncertainty is the fabric of Being John Malkovich. And it is against this backdrop of sur-reality that the film asks some pertinent questions. What is self? What does it mean to be a walking, talking human being with this thing we call free will? Does free will exist? Or is it just a nice story we tell ourselves while we’re going through the motions?