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The Ending Of Being John Malkovich Explained

It is safe to say that there is no other film in history quite like "Being John Malkovich." The 1999 release spends its 112 minutes exploring the concepts of identity, celebrity, and personality using a portal to the actor's consciousness and experiences that gives anyone willing to crawl through a tunnel (that absolutely looks like his colon) a 15-minute ride in Malkovich's head before they are dropped alongside a New Jersey Turnpike on-ramp. 

Talented but underachieving puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) discovers the portal behind a filing cabinet at his newly acquired day job for Lester Inc., which shares floor 7 1/2 of the Mertin Flemmer building in downtown Manhattan with three other companies — and appears to be in the business of filing and re-filing documents and zero else. Spike Jonze's direction and Charlie Kaufman's writing earned "Being John Malkovich" two of its three Oscar nominations. Catherine Keener brought in the third for her role as Maxine Lund, a co-worker who convinces Craig to sell admission to Malkovich for $200 a trip. 

"Being John Malkovich" takes the question of "Who are we?" two steps deeper, to ask what "identity" is in the first place – in a way that is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. Most of the characters make selfish choices throughout, but when the film ends, only Craig and Malkovich are left suffering, while the rest skate on to happy lives.

Being John Malkovich is full of abrupt shifts in behavior and personality

Maxine, Craig, his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and Malkovich come to form a sort of lopsided love rhombus, with Craig and his mostly unrequited feelings for Maxine placing him alone on the short side. The fickle but brilliant puppeteer falls in love with Maxine at first sight when they meet at an orientation for floor 7 1/2 employees. He immediately replaces his wife in his shows with a Maxine marionette, but is just as suddenly shut out of the romantic relationship that develops between Maxine and Lotte-inside-Malkovich. Craig is instantly and violently overcome by his jealousy, threatening Lotte with a revolver and locking her in a monkey cage. 

He takes his wife's place inside Malkovich for liaisons with Maxine and is eventually able to control the actor as well as he does his hand-crafted marionettes. When Lotte gets free and clues Maxine into Craig's duplicity, Maxine is impressed enough with Craig's skills to start a domestic life with the Craig/Malkovich combination. The film then jumps eight months ahead to show Malkovich now famous for a career shift to puppeteering, and a pregnant Maxine full of regret for choosing Craig's occupancy of Malkovich over Lotte's.

Craig's boss, Dr. Lester, turns out to be the one responsible for the portal

When we first meet Craig's boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), he appears to be a caricature of the inept empty suit. His comical back-and-forth with executive assistant Floris (Mary Kay Place) makes them both appear to be simpletons, but we eventually learn that she's just in denial about being hard of hearing and he is actually a soul deftly hopping from body to body in search of eternal life. That soul originally belonged to Irish seafarer Captain Mertin (Byrne Piven), who appears in the orientation video – available on YouTube — that Maxine and Craig watch on their first day on floor 7 1/2.

According to the video, Mertin came to New York in the late 19th Century and was moved by the woes of a little person (Judith Wetzell) who came to his office to tell him of her struggles. "The world was not built with me in mind," she laments. "Doorknobs are too high, chairs are unwieldy, and high-ceiling rooms mock my stature." Mertin promises to marry her and "build a floor for ye ... so at least there will be one place on God's green earth where ye and your cursed kind can live in peace."

The portal is Mertin and Lester's pathway to immortality

After Maxine rejects her in favor of the version of Malkovich with Craig inside, Lotte goes to Lester's home and confesses to an obsession with Malkovich. Lester reveals to her that he is an amalgam of Mertin — who discovered the portal while building the special floor for his wife — and sixteen others, that a new vessel body appears every generation or so, and Malkovich is the next. Mertin/Lester tells Lotte that he must make the leap by Malkovich's upcoming 44th birthday or he will be shuffled off to the next infant vessel and sentenced to life as a passenger to another soul. He also plans to bring a group of friends into Malkovich with him and invites Lotte to join them. 

She warns them that Craig has taken control of Malkovich, and so Mertin (aka Lester) and his group kidnap Maxine and threaten to kill her if Craig doesn't vacate their soon-to-be-ready vessel. Craig at first refuses, and a desperate Lotte tells Maxine, "If I can't have you, no one will." Lotte pulls out a gun and pursues Maxine into the portal, where they are diverted to Malkovich's subconscious by Craig's superior puppeteering skills. The memories they wander through are a cavalcade of anxiety and trauma, including flashbacks to a pre-teen Malkovich being teased in school and a 20-something version being told by a date that he is creepy. 

Being John Malkovich is loaded with jokes at its star's expense

The real Malkovich told Rolling Stone, "When they asked me to do it, I was slightly worried. Not at all about the tone or content, but the feeling of, if you do a film where your name is not above the title but in the title, then you may have some serious narcissistic tendencies which would require looking at." With that in mind, Malkovich gave Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze free rein to cash in on jokes at the actor's expense. 

When Craig first tells Maxine of the portal's existence, she has no idea who Malkovich is and Craig can't even name one of his films. Later, while occupying Malkovich's body, Craig calls him overrated and retches after mentioning that "he does get acting work occasionally." Another joke runs throughout "Being John Malkovich" where fans tell him — despite his protestations that he has never made any such film — that they loved him in "that jewel heist movie."

Malkovich allowing his ego and image to be so thoroughly skewered masks the fact that he is the story's only truly sympathetic main character, aside from perhaps Floris. Maxine is cold and selfish, Craig is capricious and fickle, Mertin is willing to co-opt human souls to ensure his immortality, and even the wide-eyed Lotte tries to murder Maxine in a fit of jealousy.

The portal represents the public's real-world access to celebrities

Malkovich the character and Malkovich the actor are both puppets of some sort for the entire film. As a celebrity, his personality is meshed with public perception to create a hybrid version of him that can never represent the true John Malkovich. Once Craig occupies him, Malkovich enjoys less than a minute of autonomy between Craig's departure and the entrance of Lester and friends. 

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Malkovich commented on the loss of self that comes along with celebrity, writing "i think, sadly, that privacy is finished. no such thing. if you're a known person, you learned to live without it long ago ... i have at times spoken with my peers and the head of the actors union about why we're not paid when we appear in say a tmz production, but there seems to be no real interest in [combating] it." 

The portal at Lester Inc. makes this public occupation of at least one celebrity possible in a very literal sense. Dozens of paying customers are granted access to Malkovich's body without him having any control of the gateway, and when he is occupied by Craig, Malkovich is left completely trapped beneath the master puppeteer.

Malkovich enters his own portal, leading to the most easily quoted scene in film history

When Malkovich discovers what is happening and demands that Craig and Maxine let him have a turn inside himself, he is dropped into a world where everyone is John Malkovich and the only word that anyone can speak is his own surname. Upon his ejection, a horrified Malkovich tells Craig, "I have been to the dark side. I have seen a world that no man should see. That portal is mine and it must be sealed forever." Craig refuses, saying his discovery of the pathway to Malkovich's soul gives him the right to use it for fun and profit.

Attorney Michael Madow commented on public ownership of famous bodies in the California Law Review, writing that "Entertainment and sports celebrities are the leading players in our Public Drama ... We copy their mannerisms, their styles, their modes of conversation and of consumption ... Their images are thus important expressive and communicative resources: the peculiar, yet familiar idiom in which we conduct a fair portion of our cultural business and everyday conversation" (via Harvard University). 

"Being John Malkovich" uses the selfish actions of a handful of non-celebrities to illustrate this in dimly lit greys and browns, and Malkovich exists in every ring and reflection in some form or another. 

Malkovich is left with no control over his own self

A mind-blowing scene late in the film shows the puppeteer Malkovich, with Craig inside pulling his strings, operating a complex Malkovich marionette. It's made all the more brilliant by un-suspending disbelief and realizing that it's the actor Malkovich, channeling Cusack mimicking the character Malkovich, operating a puppet version of himself.

When Craig leaves the vessel Malkovich, he moves on to a much simpler life, adopting Lester's hairstyle and wardrobe and marrying Floris — who seemingly never ages. Upon their release from Malkovich's subconscious, Maxine confesses to Lotte that she is the father of Maxine's baby. Craig, Lotte, and Maxine reunite briefly on the side of the Turnpike but the women reject Craig and he vows to re-enter Malkovich and win Maxine's heart again — oblivious to the fact that he will be relegated to a passenger soul in her daughter Emily (Kelly Teacher). 

We then flash forward another seven years and see Maxine, Lotte, and Emily laughing poolside while — unbeknownst to them — Craig sits hopelessly trapped in Emily, unable to even look away from the devastating sight of his two exes living their blissful new life together. 

Craig and Malkovich suffer while Lotte and Maxine move on

Craig's yearning for what he does not have is his repeated undoing. He abandons the sincere love of a kind partner to chase a mysterious new crush, and his choice of a permanent occupation of Malkovich becomes a prison for both men. Lissa Wenstein and Banu Seckin wrote about Craig's loss of identity in the academic journal Projections, noting that for him, "Being Malkovich symbolizes an oscillation in the sense of self between absolute perfection (Craig is John Malkovich) and complete destruction (nothing remains of Craig himself) ... TV and movie celebrities, observed closely without their knowledge, are given over to an anonymous public, whose viewing eye 'owns' what it sees." 

In the end, Craig fully destroys both himself and Malkovich. For Craig it is karmic retribution for his selfish and destructive choices, but Malkovich is guilty of nothing more than choosing a public-facing career. He is left buried beneath 17 other souls and his only chance for freedom is if Emily ripens before his body dies, but a soul suppressed for so long would surely waste away to nothing in the meantime.

For the selfish and manipulative, however, life is grand. Mertin and his friends have their pathway to eternal life, patiently and blissfully occupying Malkovich until Emily is ripe for them to displace her soul. Maxine, who is a culpable as Craig for Malkovich's loss of identity, lives happily ever after with the love of her life.