Being John Malkovich

I think that we need to establish some ground rules. Just because a movie has a few funny lines in it, it is not necessarily a comedy. Likewise, just because a movie has John Cusack in it does not make it a comedy. I think these simple rules could avoid a lot of confusion in approaching this movie, because it’s clearly not a comedy, despite some humor, and despite the wonderfully talented John Cusack (who I had no idea was even in this movie when I rented it!).

Who are you? Really, who are you? The Who had it right all those years ago in their classic rock song. This is the question that has plagued Western civilization for the last 300 years. If we aren’t, as had been firmly asserted and fairly universally accepted – at least nominally- creatures of an almighty God, then who exactly are we? What defines us, both as a species and as individuals? If God is not in control, then who *is* in control? Are we? Are we really?

The fact that the protagonist is a puppeteer is not simply a quirky choice of professions to assign a character. Here is a man who’s life exists in controlling characters – mostly inanimate. All of the control he seems to lack in his own life, he can play out – or counteract – through his creations. He feels as though he has no control over his own life – he can’t get hired because nobody has a need for a puppeteer. He gets beat up for performing excerpts from classical literature on a street corner where nobody is going to understand it beyond the hey-that-guy-with-the-puppets-is-a-perv! level.

He plays out some level of control with his wife, in dragging his feet on the issue of having a baby. But that’s about it. So no wonder he falls for the strong, confident, assertive, and thoroughly in-control Maxine.  Maxine has her own control issues, and enjoys toying with Craig (Cusack) the way he toys with his creations. The web of power begins extending to Craig’s wife, Lotte, and ultimately, of course, to John Malkovich.  Lotte decides that she’s really a man trapped in a woman’s body.  The pet monkey Elijah remembers being unable to free his own parents from captivity and comes to Lotte’s aid when Craig goes off the deep end in his efforts to keep Lotte and Maxine apart, and keep Maxine for himself.

So who are you? Are you really yourself? Have you been hijacked by someone else? would you know? What if you’re the hijacker? The presence of Dr. Lester’s crew seems almost representative of history as well as parental figures. Who are you? Are you really you? Are you just the creation of your parents? Are they in your head, telling you what to do, and do you find yourself doing it, even if it’s not really what *you* would like to do?

Are we all preprogrammed by the generations before us? Do we have any real freedom, if these generations are in our heads from history texts and psychology texts and religious texts and whatever other manner of texts – and now TV, radio, the Internet?

This is a dark but fascinating film, a curious examination of the role of identity, of the nature of power and control and the addictiveness of these elements. I’d encourage people to watch this, but don’t rent it because you think it’s going to be a comedy. And don’t think it’s a comedy because there are a few quirky or funny concepts (like the 1/2 floor that Cusack’s character ends up working in – seems like a great manifestation of our egos and demands for control that our oversized for our surroundings, just as the employees on that floor are oversized for their environs).

Watch it, and keep on wondering – if you don’t already have an answer – Who are you?

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