release of Jonze's Being John Malkovich, Tooth, or "Tooth," gets going early on the joke with this:
[A]t 4:15 John Cusack sits on his couch beside Elijah the chimpanzee, desultorily paging through the New York Post, an edition celebrating New York Yankees pitcher David Cone's July 18, 1999, perfect game. The front-page headline reads, "Awesome!" while the rear sports page indulges the woeful pun "Conegrats!" "Awesome" and "Conegrats" together can be anagrammatized to "Get across name woe," "Came onstage worse," while "Conegrats" by itself translates to "Angst core" -- perhaps a tad unsubtle here? David Cone's special rooting section was known as the Coneheads -- derived, of course, from the Dan Aykroyd-Jane Curtin franchise Saturday Night Live sketch -- and they often wore the plastic head costumes, thereby in totality conveying the rebus: alien visitor (alienation) plus head plus cone (or funnel, or tunnel) plus Post (delivery, i.e., birth canal). For the more alert viewer, you barely needed carry on with the film beyond that point, its payload had been so satisfactorily conveyed.
Pretty funny, and also not an altogether bad idea. Being John Malkovich is of course the well-known brain-teaser from 1999, directed by Jonze and written by the then mostly unknown Charlie Kaufman, in which a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich is discovered behind a filing cabinet by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), in his exceptionally low-ceilinged workplace one night while working late and pining over the sexy but cold-hearted Maxine (Catherine Keener) and basically acting outside of his home as though his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) doesn't exist, or only barely exists. Cusack is a file clerk by trade for a company called LesterCorp, headed by the obliviously eccentric Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), but a puppeteer at heart, of the not very common deep art/street performer variety, and in the scene directly preceding the one where Craig finds the Malkovich portal, Craig explains to Maxine that puppetry is a way to live inside someone else's body and see through someone else's eyes. Then a minute or so later, boom, Malkovich portal. Rarely have I seen a metaphor or theme stated so baldly, and then so rapidly and shamelessly manifested as plot. This is the sort of thing that, 999 times out of 1,000, will get any other film crucified, but in 1999 Being John Malkovich found that post-modern, mind-game sweet spot that apparently everybody, or enough people, hadn't realized they'd been longing for, and as a result the film very routinely finds itself on lists of the best films of the 1990s. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman got careers out of it, with Kaufman being one of the few screenwriters to be noticed as a human being with a name, and his particular brand of smirking unusualness knocked more than a few people for a loop.
Being John Malkovich has its moments. My favorite performance in the film is by, no, not Cameron Diaz, silly, but rather Orson Bean, who is never less than funny as the bizarre company head who it is later revealed to have a somewhat wearisome connection to the Malkovich portal, and I'm grateful to at least Jonze for introducing me, as far as I can remember, to Catherine Keener. And by far the most interesting thing about the film is where it's willing to leave John Malkovich himself. Malkovich is also extremely good in what in concept must seem like an entirely bizarre role, but which he quite effortlessly racks it up as another in a long line of calmly, smartly and articulately intense performances. But anyway, the film leaves Malkovich as Malkovich in a place that is fairly ballsy -- people who play themselves in movies are not often made to portray themselves being so thoroughly destroyed, as Malkovich is here. But of course, the film sort of carves itself out a door, there, by naming Malkovich John Horatio Malkovich, not the real Malkovich's real full name. It's unclear to me why Jonze and/or Kaufman (or Malkovich?) would consider it necessary to hedge their bets in this way, but it of course has the effect of slightly undermining whatever effect Malkovich's fate had achieved. But then again, this is one of those movies That Says A Lot About Identity, so maybe this is just part of that. Except, however discerning my taste for post-modernism, I always liked the whole Malkovich angle here, and would have vastly preferred it if Kaufman and Jonze had not fucking winked their way through that, something that is already one massive wink, as well. In any event, just as a by the way on the topic of celebrity, Being John Malkovich extends its approach to the subject beyond Malkovich himself (or, you know, "himself"; rarely has a film been more filled with quotation marks) to include a few other celebrity cameos -- for jokes! -- and while I'm not against this very popular custom in theory, I'm beginning to think I am in practice, because never before has it left me with such a sense of spiritual deflation as when Charlie Sheen and Sean Penn suddenly show up here.
To try to summarize Synecdoche, New York, while maybe not a fool's game, it's at least a considerably more reductive one than summarization normally, by definition, already is. But anyway, Caden Cotard is a theater director who, at the beginning of the film, is staging a production of Death of a Salesman with an all-young cast. He is married to Adele (Catherine Keener), a painter of very small pictures, and has a daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein). At his theater, he has a flirting relationship with Hazel, the girl who runs the box office (Samantha Morton), and is possibly worshiped by his lead actress Claire (Michelle Williams). As Caden finds himself crumbling in the face of Hazel's considerable charms, his marriage is slowly coming undone, helped along in part by Caden's exhausting hypochondria, and also by a revelation from Adele at their couples' therapy that she'd fantasized that Caden was dead and she was free to start over, and also by Adele's dismissal of his production of Death of a Salesman, which in fairness is pretty ridiculous, as just a waste of time he could be spending on creating something new and vital and his own.
What Kaufman is himself doing with Caden is taking an artistic archetype that is often romanticized -- the shy hypochondriac who is struggling to create his masterpiece -- and depicting him as essentially useless. Not worthless, which is pretty key, but useless in the sense that such a temperament will result in nothing more than an endless loop of a grind of a miserable self-hating chamber of anxiety and dread. So don't do that! Well, Kaufman isn't trying to solve anyone's problems, but he is looking into the soul of such an artist, or just anybody like that, and finding it wanting. Of course, Kaufman does still have a bit of that "Let me tell you what I mean" business going on, but here, late in the film when Dianne Wiest rather too clearly explains Caden's character to him -- meaning Caden in the play, but also, we know, Caden himself, because, well... -- Kaufman cuts this with a joke, a not unusual occurrence in his work, but, crucially, a much better joke than I'd heretofore been used to from him.