Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a struggling puppeteer in New York, gets a job as a filing clerk on the 7½th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer Building. One day, he finds a hole hidden behind a filing cabinet that leads into the head of John Malkovich, where you spend 15 minutes seeing life through his eyes before you fall into a ditch beside the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig and his coworker/crush Maxine (Catherine Keener) end up making a business out of it, and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) ends up finding out how much she likes being inside John's body. Mind Screw ensues.
While its bizarre premise has seen endless acclaim as one of the most truly original of its time, it also led to a fair share of Troubled Production among studio executives who were unwilling to take a chance on it. It did end up a critical and commercial success and was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress).
This film provides examples of:
- Aborted Arc: Lotte concludes she is a transgender man after her first experience in John Malkovich's body. However, this plot thread is only mentioned once and promptly dismissed afterward... though it does lead to some of the disagreement between her and Craig and the Love Triangle between them and Maxine.
- Ambiguously Bi: Maxine who is married to Craig but also shows interest in Lotte. Lotte as well who was romanced by Craig but is attracted to Maxine and both women end up dating each other after Craig.
- And I Must Scream:
- The final fate of Craig, who is permanently trapped inside Malkovich's daughter, forced to watch her be raised by the woman he loved and the woman he hated.
- This also happens to Malkovich while Craig was in control of his body for eight months, and this could be his situation for the rest of his life depending on how the whole host thing works.
- As Himself: Offbeat actor John Malkovich plays offbeat actor John Malkovich, although there are several significant differences between the character and the real person, as well as a couple thrown in just to make the point that they're not meant to be exactly the same (for instance, the film makes a point of mentioning that Malkovich's middle name is Horatio, which the real Malkovich's is Gavin).
- Big "NO!": When Maxine proposes that she and Craig!Malkovich have sex on Malkovich's dining room table, John (briefly managing to regain control) gives one of these in horror.
- Bizarrchitecture: A classic example. The Mertin-Flemmer Building's 7½th floor is just the start of it.
- Black Bug Room: Lotte and Maxine run through Malkovich's.
- Brain with a Manual Control: Initially averted, until Craig discovers he can control Malkovich's body, then it's played straight. There's no actual control room, however, just being in his mind and controlling him.
- Brick Joke: When Craig finally leaves John Malkovich's mind forever, he's holding the plank of wood he had at the very beginning.
- The Cameo: Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt all play themselves.
- Check, Please!:Maxine: Tell me a little about yourself.
Craig: Well, I'm a puppeteer...
Maxine: [turns to bartender] Check!
- Downer Ending: As a last-ditch effort to win Maxine back, Craig jumps into the portal to Malkovich's mind too late, and as a result, he is trapped inside the mind of the girl being raised by both of his former wives, unable to affect anything. Forever. The last lines of the movie are him weakly pleading that the girl look away from the two women laughing and playing with each other. Given that he turned into a psychopathic Jerkass, a certain amount of this seems like karma. In addition, John Malkovich has his body taken over permanently by Lester and his gang, with the implication that they'll someday attempt to do the same to Emily. The ending does have a bright side, though, in that Lotte and Maxine do get to live a happy life with their child.
- Evil vs. Evil: There are no genuinely moral characters in the film, save Malkovich himself, and even he's painted as a bit of a pervert in the trip through his memories. Everyone else is trying to take control of Malkovich, and worse his as yet unborn daughter, with no regard for the fact that they're essentially killing them by suppressing their consciousnesses forever.
- Femme Fatale: Maxine.
- Lotte spends the whole first half of the movie making ridiculous, flower-child psychology statements like "Elijah is suffering from some childhood trauma". Then, when Lotte is struggling against the ropes she's tied in, Elijah has a first-person flashback to when his parents were tied up (complete with monkey-language dialogue and English subtitles), and he couldn't untie their bonds before he was captured.
- Craig performs "Craig's Dance of Despair" with a puppet at the opening, then performs it using John Malkovich's body.
- Near the beginning of the movie, Craig and Lotte are making dinner and the parrot is being annoying. When Lotte goes to put it up it says "Help! She's locking me in a cage!" and it's kind of cute. Later in the movie, however, when Craig goes crazy and stuffs Lotte in a cage, she screams "Help! He's locking me in a cage!"
- Early on, Maxine asks Craig, "Are you a fag?" By the end of the movie, she's in a lesbian relationship.
- Craig watches a video where Captain Mertin gets a proposal from a midget in need of help. Later, Lester gets a similar proposal from Lotte (he's even holding the same pipe from the beginning).
- Earlier, Craig is disgusted by a famous puppeteer who is solely a gimmick celebrity. This is ultimately his fate when he controls Malkovich.
- The only thing that Lotte wants from Craig is a child. She finally gets this surprisingly when she becomes a father inside Malkovich.
- While Craig is trying to intuit Maxine's name, one of the other names he drones through is Emily.
- While Craig is long-term possessing Malkovich, at one point he bemoans that he hadn't gotten a younger body.
- Genre-Busting: A comedy drama laden with surrealism which functions as a borderline philosophy course.
- Grand Theft Me: The entire point of the doorway inside the Mertin Flemmer Building. Turns out that Mertin has been using it for decades to jump from host to host as his current one grows too old... which means that little Emily is doomed to become the next victim once she turns 44.
- Granola Girl: Lotte.
- Has Two Mommies: Maxine becomes pregnant with Emily from Lotte-in-Malkovich, so Lotte is seen as the other parent, and she and Maxine end up raising Emily together.
- Hope Spot: A truly grim one In-Universe; the moment that Craig leaves Malkovich's mind forever, he rejoices in his freedom — only to be taken over permanently by Lester and his friends seconds later.
- Humans Are Bastards
- Hypocritical Humor: Upon first meeting, Maxine calls Craig a fag repeatedly despite actually being a lesbian.
- If I Can't Have You...: Lotte to Maxine in the film's climax, chasing her with a gun through Malkovich's subconscious and failing to shoot her on multiple occasions. She even says it verbatim at the start.
- If It's You, It's Okay: Maxine, who shows no other signs of being interested in women, tells Lotte that she's absolutely smitten with her and loves having sex with her... but only when Lotte is inhabiting (the male) John Malkovich's body. By the end of the film, though, she's apparently decided that she's fine being with Lotte even in her original female body.
- Karma Houdini: Lester and his friends, Maxine, Lotte... everyone except Craig and Malkovich himself, really.
- Leitmotif: Most of the musical score consists of a single six-chord melody in a canon-like arrangement, making slight adjustments for the given moment or character.
- Loser Protagonist: Craig starts out the movie as a penniless puppeteer. When both he and Lotte try to make a move on Maxine at the same time, she rejects Craig because she doesn't find him physically attractive. Ouch.
- Love Triangle: Craig and Lotte are married to each other, but more attracted to Maxine.
- Mainstream Obscurity: An in-universe example. The characters admire John Malkovich immensely, and they seem convinced that he's one of the world's greatest living actors, but none of them can actually name a single movie that he's been in (except "That jewel thief movie", which Malkovich insists he never made).
- Mathematician's Answer:Craig: Hi. Do you know that I don't even know your name, or where you work?
- Mental Story: A significant chunk of the movie takes place in Malkovich's head.
- Mental World: The chase through John Malkovich's unconscious mind.
- Me's a Crowd: When Malkovich himself attempts to use the portal, he finds himself in a bizarre world where everyone has his head and no vocabulary other than his name.Malkovich: Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich?
Malkovich: Malkovich Malkovich.
- Missing Floor: The 7½ floor of the Mertin-Flemmer Building. In order to get there, you have to stop the elevator between the seventh and eighth floors, and pry open the door with a crowbar.
- Mind Screw: In more ways than one.
- Pokémon Speak: The Mental World Malkoviches.
- Pop Culture Osmosis: ESPN ran an entire ad campaign on itself using the film's premise, where fans would jump into the bodies of athletes - and end up on the same ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
- Primal Scene: In Malkovich's subconscious.
- Preserve Your Gays: Maxine and Lotte survive with very little punishment while the straight Craig ends up trapped inside another's head.
- Running Gag: People only knowing John Malkovich for being in "the jewel thief movie", with Malkovich insisting that he wasn't.
- Sex by Proxy: Lotte and Maxine have sex by way of Maxine seducing Malkovich while Lotte is in his head.
- Sitting Sexy on a Piano: Used disturbingly. When Malkovich goes into his own head, one of the Malkoviches is a lounge singer in a dress reclining on a piano.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: More on the cynical end.
- Surreal Horror: A hole in an office building that is used to take someone over. The scene where Malkovich tries to go through it.
- Transgender: Lotte concludes she is transgender after an experience in Malkovich's body. Although, it's quickly dismissed in favor of the Love Triangle between her, Craig, and Maxine.
- Triang Relations: Craig and Lotte are married, but Craig is attracted to Maxine, who is more interested in Lotte.
- Unguided Lab Tour: Pretty much how the portal to John Malkovich's psyche is discovered.
- Weirdness Censor: Granted he didn't witness what Malkovich was going through firsthand, but perhaps it's fitting (especially given the events of 2011) that Charlie Sheen didn't think anything Malkovich was saying sounded weird at all. Actually, he found the whole thing kinda hot.
- What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?: Invoked and subverted for laughs in the same sentence. Shortly after discovering the portal for the first time, Craig makes a pseudo-intellectual remark that this revelation "raises all kinds of philosophical-type questions." Subtext: "Don't read too much into this, audience."
- What Have I Become?: Craig actually says this when he considers how he tied up Lotte and locked her in a cage with her monkey. Then he goes right on doing what he was doing. It may even be that the whole thing was just a ruse to get Lotte to make an appointment for Maxine.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Of a sort. More like a who are they now epilogue.