Actors playing themselves has become the perfect comedic shtick to embody the overly ironic, self-referential, postmodern landscape that so-called innovative entertainment has become in the past decade. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes, James van der Beek in Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle all grinningly acknowledge their past television careers, even as these latest performances are projected from inside a tv set. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and pretty much all of the many, many guest stars on 30 Rock, Entourage and Extras play at being mean or hugely egotistical or bizarre. These roles are meant to wink and nudge the audience. See, we’re not really like this. We’re so not like this that it’s funny to pretend we are! But if all this winking and nudging continues, someone’s going to get hurt as the fourth wall come tumbling down on top of them.
That’s not to say these TV shows and films aren’t entertaining. Most of them are really funny, at least for their first seasons. But what does it imply about the state of storytelling today that so many of our best shows sound like fanfiction about actors’ lives? Are we so obsessed with celebrity we’d rather just watch them play themselves? The fact that we get to be in on the joke is just an added bonus, a chance for our own egos to grow to celebrity proportions. Who wouldn’t want to be in on it when the jokester is Neil Patrick Harris himself?
I bring all this up because I recently re-watched Being John Malkovich. The film was released in 1999, just one year before Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first season, and long before having your character’s name match your Christian one was considered de rigueur. And seeing John Malkovich, two-time Oscar nominee play John Malkovich, luckless sucker, is quite a draw. I came for the Malkovich … but I stayed for more than that.
Malkovich playing himself isn’t nearly the weirdest thing about this movie. Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (also Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) make quite the team. I’m loath to think of a film with a more unique plot that holds together so well all the way to the end.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer who takes a filing job at the insistence of his frazzled wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Craig is hired by LesterCorp, whose office is situated on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. Craig instantly falls in love with his new co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), growing more obsessed with her by the day, though she’s only toying with him.
One day at work, Craig moves a filing cabinet and finds a tiny door behind it. Like the door to the garden in Alice in Wonderland or to the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this miniature entrance leads to a fantastical place. Specifically, to a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, where Craig can experience life as an acclaimed movie star for 15 minutes at a time. Craig and Maxine start selling tickets at $200 a pop.
Kaufman, who said he originally just wanted to write a film about a man who falls in love with a woman who’s not his wife, has created a bizarre, unique little thought experiment come to vivid, more bizarre life. What would happen if you could be someone else? You still retain your own consciousness, but you are another person? John Malkovich, specifically. More ethical conundrums come up—Craig refers to his experience as a “metaphysical can of worms”—as he discovers he can control Malkovich, trapping the actor inside a body that no longer belongs to him. Making matters worse, Lotte falls in love with Maxine. But Maxine can only return her affection when Lotte’s inside Malkovich.
The actor as puppet is not a new idea—I think Hamlet had something to say on the subject—but Jonze and Kaufman’s film plays with it in new ways. Their second collaboration, Adapatation., is similarly mind-bending. Jonze’ direction is perfectly suited to the material, making the audience feel Craig’s growing uncertainty and Malkovich’s frustration. An Escher-inspired trip through Malkovich’s subconscious and a chimp’s repressed memory are two sequences that capture especially well the director’s distinctive point of view.
Though I applaud Jonze and Kaufman for filming their outlandish ideas in such a way that they don’t fall flat, I do have to say that Being John Malkovich can be an uncomfortable experience. Watching a man lose control of his own body is no picnic—Lotte’s reference to going through the portal as “the Malkovich ride” in particular made me cringe. And Craig’s less and less rational attempts to keep Lotte and Maxine apart begin to sicken the audience and embarrass the character. Additionally, when someone is being Malkovich, their point of view is shot through two eyeholes, which can become dizzying after some minutes. It’s hard to really fault the film for not getting it all right, though, when its concept is so thoroughly original and when it continues, scene after scene, to surprise you.
In fact, many critics have commented that it’s a miracle this film ever got made at all, that it managed to get funding and studio backing. One famous anecdote goes that at a pitch meeting, one bigwig asked, “Why can’t it be called Being Tom Cruise?”