Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to step into the mind of the Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich? No? Well, Charlie Kaufman did—which is why he wrote Being John Malkovich. In this film, Craig (played by John Cusack) discovers a portal into Malkovich’s headspace. He and his two comrades, Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and Maxine (Catherine Keener), then become obsessed with this existential wonder.
After you’ve watched the movie, check out Travis’s Colossal explanation of Kaufman’s story and its strange ending. And be sure to leave a comment about your own interpretation of the movie. Travis will respond to everyone and hopefully we can start a great dialogue!
But if this is your first time watching Being John Malkovich, or if you plan to revisit the film and are looking for some guidance, here are some of the major themes and motifs to watch for in the film.
1. Reaching your full potential
In the 20th century, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow put forth an important (and controversial) theory called self-actualization. Basically, he created a pyramid called the “Hierarchy of Needs” that outlined how somebody can truly attain self-fulfillment. Those steps involve caring for yourself (health, food, shelter), becoming part of a group (family, friends), and tending to yourself mentally (respect, self-esteem).
In Being John Malkovich, you see each character working their way through the hierarchy. Being inside John Malkovich’s mind forces each character to change their perspective on the world and how they fit into it.
2. The meaning of art
While there are several character to follow in Being John Malkovich, Craig becomes the main character with the most screen time. Thus, much of the movie centers on Craig’s rise in the world as an artist. Which inherently begs the question: what does Craig’s art represent?
For years, Charlie Kaufman struggled to push his eccentric ideas and find his identity in Hollywood. So, in many ways, the film becomes a reflection of Kaufman’s struggles and his relationship with art. Your art means one thing to the public, but another thing to yourself. What is the difference? What drives you as an artist? What are you saying with your art? These are all questions at the heart of Craig’s journey.
Each of the characters in Being John Malkovich is on a search for self-actualization—which, according to Maslow, means reaching your full potential as a human being. In what ways does John Malkovich’s perspective force these characters to confront who they truly are?
Craig—a struggling, unsuccessful puppeteer—believes that gaining control of John Malkovich will become his masterwork. What does that say about Craig’s relationship to his art? And how he views himself in his own art? What is the relationship between Craig and the puppet of himself?
There are several animals throughout the film, including a monkey named Elijah—who eventually becomes one of the more crucial characters of the film. Craig and Lotte’s pet chimpanzee comes to represent a primitive version of Craig. How does what we learn about Elijah contrast Craig and his struggles?
Throughout the movie, there are several comments about aging and what it means to live a long, healthy life—especially from Craig’s boss, Lester (who, as we find out, has lived a very, very long time). How do these comments and plot devices play into Craig’s existential crisis?
5. Love vs. Sex
Both Craig and Lotte become attracted to Maxine—for very different reasons. What is the meaning behind each of their infatuations? And how do those fascinations dictate the trajectories of their respective journeys? What does love provide for Lotte. And lust provide for Craig?