For his first-ever presentation at Cinema 1544, Tyler Manning selected the first-ever feature film from director Spike Jonze, who broke into the business by directing music videos. Since we hadn’t had many recent shorts, I figured we may as well watch a few of Jonze’s videos to start off. Jonze apparently has a thing for Björk, and he’s got a thing for wacky dancing so the selected videos are pretty representative.
Craig Schwartz is a down-on-his-luck marionette artist, or in the common parlance, a “loser puppeteer”. And it’s worse than that. Not only is he unemployed, but he is trapped in a failing marriage with an animal-rescue-obsessed wife, Lotte. He lives with a veritable menagerie of animals running through the house, including a psychologically-frail diapered chimpanzee.
No wonder he likes to retreat to the basement and play with puppets. Seeing as how there’s no real market for his talents, Lotte suggests that maybe he get a job that pays him some actual money and perhaps gets him out of the house for a bit. Not a bad idea, really.
Craig looks through the want ads and eventually finds a job doing deep storage filing – not at the Crimson Permanent Assurance, but at LesterCorp, a company that resides on the undersized 7.5th floor of a historical New York building and apparently does nothing but filing. It’s kind of a rough way to make money, but perhaps that’s not important as it turns out the place is a front anyway.
Amongst the wacky people Craig meets at LesterCorp is Lester, the boss who claims to be something like 120 years old, drinks only carrot juice, mistakenly believes he has a speech defect, and insists on describing his lurid fantasies to Craig. When he invites Craig and Lotte over for dinner, Lotte discovers a strange John Malkovich shrine while looking for a bathroom.
Craig also meets Maxine, a seductively beautiful co-worker who immediately senses that he has fallen in love with her and explicitly spurns him at every possible opportunity. She invites him to jump out a window at some point. Somehow, Craig is pathetic enough to keep trying, despite the fact he has no chance of intriguing her…yet.
But soon, Craig does find just the thing that might interest Maxine…a bizarre passageway hidden behind a file cabinet. Most office buildings don’t have long, dirt-and-mud-filled tunnels randomly projecting out of the 7.5th floor, so Craig investigates. The door closes behind him, the passage eventually becomes a slip-n-slide and bang!
He finds himself in someone else’s body. Whose body isn’t entirely clear until a mirror indicates that it’s none other than the title character. The entire experience lasts about 15 minutes before he finds himself falling into a field on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig turns to Maxine, hoping that finding this bizarre portal into a famous actor’s mind will make her like him.
She decides to use it to make money with a surreptitious after-hours business offering rides in John Malkovich. It’s lucrative (I mean, $200 a pop, and that’s actually pretty reasonable for such a metaphysical adventure). Malkovich unwittingly cooperates by apparently never sleeping at night.
But it’s not just the clientele that gets hooked on Malkovich – Lotte gets the bug too. And even worse, she and Maxine fall in love and begin to carry out an affair via menage-a-Malkovich after Maxine is able to seduce him. Naturally, when Craig finds out he’s not terribly happy about his wife stealing his crush. He gets a bit violent, locks Lotte in a monkey cage and begins stealing her “dates” with Maxine.
Here’s where Craig’s puppeteering skills come in handy – unlike any of the other clients he has the subtlety to learn to not only experience what John Malkovich experiences, but also to control what John Malkovich does. Apparently his efforts are successful, because when Lotte gets free and tattles on Craig, Maxine dumps her for her husband. But the problem is that while Malkovich was completely unaware of his passive visitors, he can definitely feel Craig controlling him, and he assumes that Maxine is involved. This allows Malkovich to track down the night-time business and enter the portal into his own mind. What happens when you enter a portal into your own mind?
Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich? Malkovich Malkovich!! Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich? Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich!
With Malkovich pretty upset about the whole thing, Craig figures out how to defeat the 15-minute rule and stay inside Malkovich indefinitely. While this ends the whole Malkovich Ride business, not only does it get the litigiously-minded Malkovich off of their backs, it also allows Craig to use Malkovich’s celebrity status to realize his dream of elevating the art of puppeteering to the pinnacle of the entertainment business along with his manager, fianceé, and soon to be mother of Malkovich’s child Maxine.
Meanwhile, Lotte puts two and two together and realizes that the portal being located in LesterCorp and Lester having an odd shrine to Malkovich aren’t a coincidence, so she seeks him out. He lets her in on his secret – he’s been doing this for a while, jumping from body to body as a method of immortality. He explains the whole thing to her with the help of a completely inexplicable textbook, festooned with professional illustrations depicting the science of the process as if Mind Portals 101 was a course routinely offered down at the local community college.
Lester is merely the current vessel, but soon (when it is “ripe”, which only happens for a few hours on its 44th birthday) he – and several dozen friends – will make the leap into the Malkovich vessel. But in order to successfully do this, he’s got to get Craig to leave. If they miss the window, they’ll leap instead into the larval vessel (which happens to be the Malkovich-Maxine child), but such a leap will not allow them to control the vessel, and they’ll be trapped in the vessel until its death, and then kaput! So for the sake of immortality, they convince Craig that they’ve kidnapped Maxine and will kill her unless he leaves – which he does.
But Maxine has already started to fall out of love with Craig, and now that he’s not in Malkovich anymore, she hooks up with Lotte instead. In a desperate attempt to salvage the situation Craig goes in for one more Makovich ride, but too late. Oh, and he doesn’t know the whole bit about not portaling into a larval vessel. Thus, he’s trapped inside of Maxine’s daughter, unable to control her, and forced to watch Maxine and Lotte’s happiness for the rest of his life.
Look away. Look away. (She doesn’t look away.)
What to say? Craig got what he deserved for tampering in God’s domain, right? Lester, however, apparently gets away with it. Great movie. The close-the-loop Malkovich scene is beauty and brilliance Reese’s Peanut Butter Cupped together in the best package since at least Danica McKellar.