Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
Being John Malkovich is a 1999 fantasy comedy drama directed by Spike Jonze (I’m starting to realize that I really like a lot of his films). It’s about a jobless puppeteer who is stuck in a rut and in the end becomes doomed to remain that way forever (which he pretty much deserved).
I think the first time I saw this movie, it was playing on TV. I stumbled across it during the part where Craig (John Cusack), the main character, is making two of his puppets hump during a street corner performance. A little girl sees the puppet porn and her father goes off on Craig, punching him in the face and giving him a bloody mouth.
Craig deserved to be punched in the face for exposing a child to that.
He is so wrapped up in hating his own life, ignoring his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and being ungrateful that his life is passing him by.
When Craig finally lands a job at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, he starts lusting after a his coworker, Maxine (Catherine Keener).
This is mentally cheating.
If you can’t open your mouth to tell your spouse that you are unhappy and that the two of you should end the relationship, you are an asshole and not emotionally mature enough to be in a relationship. Why keep someone trapped in an unhappy marriage, a marriage where their spouse doesn’t even love them or care for them?
Lotte clearly wants to have a baby with Craig and start a family, and rather than speaking up and being honest, he strings her along, pretending as if one day they’ll have children — when in reality, he is already one foot out the door.
Everyday Craig goes to work and hits on Maxine, who shows zero interest in him, even going so far as to tell him he wouldn’t know what to do with her if he got her (one of my favorite lines for shutting down obnoxiously persistent men who can’t take “no” for an answer).
After Craig — who clearly won’t go the **** away — begs Maxine to spend time with him, Maxine eventually agrees to go out for drinks with Craig, but it’s pretty obvious she’s not into him and is just giving him pity attention.
Craig sees exactly what he wants to see and thinks that Maxine is into him.
Meanwhile, Craig’s wife, Lotte, is so desperately unhappy, she’s obsessively caring for animals. It’s as if she’s trying to fill a hole by loving animals, but the hole just keeps getting bigger and bigger. That hole is her self-hatred.
Craig — in his selfishness and neglect and complete disregard for his wife’s mental well being — stays with Maxine at the bar late into the night. When he comes home, his wife is hurt that he didn’t call. He tells her a lie about hanging out with his boss all night (he only sat with the old man ten minutes before running to see Maxine), and to put the cherry on the cake, he tells Lotte that it’s her fault he was out late because “you wanted me to work.”
What an ass.
What Craig did in not speaking up and lusting after another woman was unfair to Lotte, who wasted years of her life with someone who didn’t give a shit about her.
Yes, Lotte is responsible for her own happiness. But that doesn’t excuse Craig for lying, cheating, and leading her on.
After creepily making a doll of Maxine and talking to it all night, Craig decides to try telling Maxine how he feels the next day — which is more than I can say for most men, who insidiously pretend to be a woman’s friend while trying to get sex from her, as if she were a street woman and “niceness” some kind of currency.
The nicest thing I can say about Craig is that while he’s an asshole, at least he’s an honest one. Doesn’t make him any less of an asshole, though.
Craig tells Maxine that he’s never felt this way about a woman before and that he believes they belong together. He looks so desperate and pathetic after her series of blunt “No’s” that it’s kinda painful to watch.
If someone is meant to be with you, you’ll never have to beg them to realize it. Craig is fixated on Maxine because he’s stuck in a rut. He hates himself and hates his life and sees Maxine as some kind of cure-all that can magically fix everything for him.
But being sexually attracted to someone doesn’t guarantee compatibility or happiness. That’s something these sort of people fail to realize. It’s as if they think a relationship is nothing but sexual gratification and that’s it.
Maxine thinks Craig’s puppeteering is creepy and continuously mocks him. She is not into him as a person at all, and yet, he continues pursuing her. Why would he want to be with someone who has no interest in him? Because he thinks sex with a woman he’s highly attracted to can solve everything wrong in his life, and that’s just silly.
Unfortunately, many men in this country seem to be laboring under the same delusion. The answer is self-love, but no one’s willing to hear that.
While at work, Craig finds a little door that lets him enter the brain of John Malkovich for fifteen minutes, experiencing the world through the movie star’s eyes. When the fifteen minutes are up, he is expelled from a pipe on the highway. He runs all the way back to work and tells Maxine. Maxine initially thinks he’s nuts but eventually decides they can make money off the door.
Craig shares Maxine’s idea with his wife, who demands to see the door for herself. Once she’s been inside Malkovich, she becomes sort of obsessed — showing that she is just as unhappy in her life as Craig.
Lotte is dying to be someone else.
That same night, Craig takes Lotte to dinner at his boss’ house. Lotte is depressed and distracted because being John Malkovich for fifteen minutes made her realize how empty and unfulfilling her life is.
Unhappy, she excuses herself from the table under the pretense of going to use the bathroom. Instead, she stumbles upon a secret room in the house that is creepily all about John Malkovich.
After her discovery, Lotte tells Craig that the portal is kind of feminine and that she likes it. This is a foreshadowing, dropping a hint that Lotte is attracted to women.
There is further foreshadowing when Lotte surprises Craig at work, meets Maxine, and mentions sincerely that she’s pretty. The fact that Maxine is very flattered by it and appears to like Lotte too is even more foreshadowing.
Lotte tells her husband that, for the first time in her life, things felt “right.” Speaking as a lesbian myself, this sounds like someone who lived a lifetime in confusion, unable to accept her own sexuality due to years of ingrained homophobia. By being John Malkovich (and essentially living in a straight man’s body), Lotte was forced to confront her desire for women.
And of course, Craig shows what an ass he is yet again by yelling his wife to tears and then telling her that her desires are “just a phase.”
What happens next is pretty cute.
Lotte reenters John Malkovich and goes on his date with Maxine. As John and Maxine get to know each other, Lotte finds herself falling in love with Maxine. She finds herself realizing how good it feels to be looked at with desire by a woman, to be wanted by a woman, to have a woman flirt with her.
In other words, Lotte’s true sexual feelings awaken by being John Malkovich.
What’s hilarious about this is that Lotte is essentially cheating on her husband with the same woman he was originally cheating on her with. I might feel bad for Craig that his wife was gay and didn’t want him if he hadn’t been cheating on her and lying to her and stringing her along in a loveless marriage for years prior.
Without stopping to realize how intrusive it is, Maxine and Craig start selling access to the John Malkovich portal, $200 a pop. Every person who gets to be John Malkovich — essentially seeing life from a financially successful, respected, self-loving man’s perspective — comes out happy with a sense of fulfillment.
Meanwhile, Lotte insists on inviting Maxine to dinner at their home. A hilarious scene plays out where both she and Craig attempt to seduce Maxine. Maxine finds both of them uninteresting but seems to enjoy Lotte’s puppy-like eagerness and even seductively winks at her.
At this point, it’s obvious Maxine is having an affair with Lotte. She had Lotte sent through the portal by Craig, then called John Malkovich and arranged a date with him while Lotte was in his head. She also knew that Lotte was in Malkovich’s head during the date as well.
In other words, Maxine and Lotte are using John Malkovich to have an affair.
In the scene that follows, Craig and Lotte both jump on Maxine, trying to have sex with her. Maxine shoves them both off and punches Craig — yay! — for trying to kiss her after she repeatedly told him she wasn’t interested.
In an attempt to make him accept it once and for all, Maxine tells Craig straight-up that she is not physically attracted to him. Then she tells Lotte that she’s “smitten” with her but only when she’s inside Malkovich.
It’s because Lotte completely lacks confidence and self-love — unless she’s inside Malkovich.
In other words, “being John Malkovich” is a euphemism for loving yourself, having confidence, and believing you are worthy of love. Both Craig and Lotte fall short of this. They are self-loathing and hate their lives, and as a result, they are miserable.
Maxine wants to be with a woman who has her **** together. A woman who loves herself and fully embraces herself just the way she is. Until Lotte can learn to love herself, she can’t be with Maxine.
While Craig sits in a miserable stupor in his bed, Maxine and Lotte continue using John Malkovich to be together. They use him to have sex, and Maxine says while climbing on top of Malkovich, “I love you, Lotte.”
John Malkovich’s confused face is priceless.
When Lotte returns home after being with Maxine, Craig argues with her. It’s pretty hypocritical of him when he was trying to do the exact same thing in the beginning of the film without regard for Lotte and her feelings whatsoever.
Craig then goes to work and yells at Maxine as well, accusing her of hurting him on purpose.
Maxine happily tells Craig that she’s in love with Lotte, and Craig throws a tantrum. He might have been a sympathetic figure had he been angry that someone was sleeping with his wife. But Craig doesn’t give a **** about Lotte. He’s angry that someone is sleeping with Maxine, as if Maxine were his wife and he was actually in a relationship with her — except the part where his creepy ass never was.
Craig goes home and holds a gun to Lotte’s head, ordering her to call Maxine and arrange another date with Malkovich. He then ties her up with duct tape and crams her in the cage with her chimp before running off to the portal.
Craig will do anything to sleep with Maxine, even if it means deceiving her by pretending to be Lotte. And why wouldn’t he do this heinous thing? He sees Maxine as “evil” for not wanting him.
Craig gets into Malkovich’s head and basically sleeps with Maxine — who believes she is sleeping with Lotte. This is disgusting.
Meanwhile, poor Malkovich has been mind raped by everyone in the film. While sleeping with Maxine, he is horrified to feel Craig using him like a puppet.
Malkovich follows Maxine to work and discovers that she and Craig are selling people access to his brain.
Malkovich then crawls through his own portal . . .
. . . and this hilarious **** happens.
Malkovich finds himself in a world where everything is Malkovich — language, writing, ******* street signs. Every person also has John Malkovich’s head, including women and small children (truly grotesque).
It’s enough to make anyone go mad.
Thankfully, Malkovich is ejected from the nightmare by the pipe off the highway. He tells Craig to seal the portal because it’s a direct violation of his mind to have people seeing his private life. Because Craig is an asshole, he refuses. Malkovich threatens to take him to court.
While Craig is off in Malkovich’s body with Maxine (who doesn’t seem to mind that he tricked her — gross!), Lotte goes to Craig’s boss for help. She confesses that she stumbled upon his “Malkovich room” and wants to know how she can “be John Malkovich.”
Lester reveals that he’s isn’t really Lester. He’s some other guy who hopped into Lester’s body using a portal. He’s prolonged his life by hopping from body to body and had been planning to steal John Malkovich’s body next (poor man).
“Lester” further explains that if he doesn’t jump into Malkovich before the actor’s 44th birthday, he will be forced to jump into a baby instead and will be trapped inside, absorbed by the vessel, forced to watch from someone else’s mind as they live their life and unable to control them.
Sounds like hell, right?
Lester further reveals that he’s not alone. He’s figured out a way to take multiple people with him from vessel to vessel and had been planning to take a whole crowd inside of Malkovich.
Meanwhile, Craig has figured out how to stay inside Malkovich indefinitely, using his puppeteer skills. He puts on a show for Maxine, doing the angsty little puppet routine that the movie opens with.
Craig has basically robbed a man of his agency and his body, while forcing him to watch helplessly as someone else controls him.
I’ve never encountered a bigger rape metaphor.
What’s even worse, Maxine thinks that Craig is brilliant and wants him to stay inside Malkovich forever! I guess Craig was right about her: she is evil after all.
Craig stays inside John Malkovich for eight months, marries Maxine, and launches his puppeteering career.
Maxine looks pretty miserable about the entire thing. Likely she thought she would be happy being the wife of a rich actor. Instead, she’s miserable because she isn’t being true to herself (aka she isn’t being John Malkovich).
It’s my theory that — like Lotte — Maxine is actually gay. The only reason she slept with Malkovich initially was to be with Lotte. But because she was in denial, she used a man as a go-between. Just my theory. Because she’s so miserable with Craig but winds up really happy with Lotte — as you’ll see in a few paragraphs (this is written with the assumption that you’ve seen the film).
It becomes apparent that Maxine is still in love with Lotte when she is shown lovingly caring for Craig’s Lotte doll.
This is why I believe Maxine was in serious denial about her sexuality. She was really in love with Lotte but was terrified of actually being with her. And so she chose shallow options instead — money, fame, and a fake marriage to a man she didn’t care for and wasn’t even attracted to.
Essentially, Maxine made the same mistake as Lotte in marrying Craig. And Craig seems to have some kind of subconscious fetish for lesbians — women who will never desire him — because he doesn’t love himself either. So he instinctively goes for people who can’t love him.
You’re probably thinking that Maxine and Lotte had to have some attraction for Craig to marry him. No, they didn’t. All it takes is lying to yourself and you, a lesbian, will wind up with a man. It happened to me.
Maybe I’m projecting onto the film. Or maybe I have a deeper understanding of these themes because I’ve lived it.
Craig comes home to discover that Maxine has been kidnapped. Lester calls on the phone and tells Craig to leave Malkovich’s body or they will kill Maxine.
Craig starts whining about how he’ll lose everything. It’s amazing what a dumbass he is. His pregnant wife is going to be killed and all he can do is whine about losing his entire life — which he stole from another man anyway!
Hilariously enough, Lester points this out and cusses out Craig on the phone.
When it seems Craig isn’t going to give up Malkovich, Lotte demands to know why they can’t just enter the portal and force him out. Lester explains that Craig — as a puppeteer — is just too powerful: he would just push the others into Malkovich’s subconscious and retain control.
A distraught Lotte pulls a gun and attempts to shoot Maxine, saying somberly that if she can’t have Maxine, no one can. Terrified, Maxine runs into the Malkovich portal and Lotte follows.
This results in a mad chase through Malkovich’s mind as Lotte tries desperately to shoot Maxine. (Damn that they made Lotte a crazy lesbian trope.)
As Maxine runs for her life, we see that John Malkovich actually had a pretty crappy life. His childhood and teen years were pretty awful, and yet, somehow, he grew up to be a man who loved himself, was wealthy, powerful, and confident.
It’s the entire lesson of the story: we are each responsible for our own happiness, we are each responsible for choosing to love ourselves and for choosing to be good people — regardless of society, regardless of upbringing.
John Malkovich mastered self-love, and it’s something everyone else in the film is desperately trying to grasp, this “mystery” inside him.
(That sniffing scene, though? What the ****?)
Maxine finally manages to wrestle the gun from Lotte. They are ejected from the portal, and while yelling at each other in the rain, they have a touching moment.
Lotte says she loves Maxine and demands to know why she hurt her like that.
Maxine says that the baby is Lotte’s because Lotte was inside Malkovich when she got pregnant. She kept it because Lotte was the “father.”
It takes Craig hours to decide to leave Malkovich in order to save Maxine — which shows that he never really loved her, the selfish asshole.
He sees Maxine and Lotte kissing and runs to them, shouting that he gave up Malkovich to prove his love to Maxine. Maxine and Lotte get in a taxi and drive off, leaving him standing in the rain.
Seven years later, Maxine and Lotte are shown happily living together and raising their daughter, Emily, who is revealed by Malkovich (now possessed by Lester and his friends) to be a portal like her biological father.
As the music plays the movie to a fade-out, we can hear a very miserable Craig inside of Emily. Apparently, he tried to re-enter Malkovich after Lester and his friends, only to get trapped inside Emily instead — someone who he can’t seem to control.
He is now forced to watch as Maxine lives a happy life with Lotte, finally embracing and living as her authentic self.
In other words, finally being John Malkovich.
© 2019 Ash