Yes, this is the movie about a puppeteer named Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) who finds a magic portal that sucks you into the head of John Malkovich, where, for fifteen minutes, you watch and feel from the inside as the Oscar-nominated actor showers, shaves, picks his teeth or bangs a babe – it depends on the hour – before time runs out and you get booted into a ditch beside the New Jersey Turnpike. No, this is not a movie you should rush to avoid. The crazy-ass imagination at work in Being John Malkovich hits you like a blast of pure oxygen. Unblemished by solemnity, intellectual pretensions or elephant dung, this movie of constant astonishments will make you laugh hard and long.
Charlie Kaufman, in his first time out of the gate as a screen-writer, has devised the freakiest fun house since Dorothy discovered Oz. And debuting feature director Spike Jonze, 30, orchestrates the teasing absurdity of the plot as if nothing could be more natural than climbing into a celebrity’s head. Maybe you know Jonze from his TV commercials (Nike, Nissan) or his music videos (Beastie Boys, Weezer, Fatboy Slim) or his acting (Three Kings). Maybe you know that his real name is Adam Spiegel, of Spiegel catalog fame, and that he recently married Sofia Coppola and that he’s a nut for skateboarding. What you won’t know until you see Being John Malkovich is that Jonze is a virtuoso, a weaver of images who realigns the dull old world to his own thrillingly unique vision.
And he’s also a whiz with actors. Jonze does wonders with a let’s-try-anything cast. Cusack excels at nailing the seedy self-absorption of Craig, the unemployed puppet man stuck with a pet-obsessed wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, deglamed with a vengeance and funny as hell). Craig has no prospects until he takes a job as a file clerk in a Manhattan office run by Mr. Lester (the priceless Orson Bean), a boss so old (105) and so cheap that he rents the 7 1/2th floor, where the low ceilings force employees to walk in a perpetual stoop. It’s there that Craig falls for co-worker Maxine (delicious Catherine Keener is in dazzling form), a babe with a mouth on her. She’s not into fucking a guy who plays with dolls, not until Craig finds the door that leads to Malkovich’s cranium. Maxine knows just what to do. “We’ll sell tickets,” she says brightly. For $200 a shot, every loser can have his fifteen minutes of Malkovich.
The line forms quickly, even though most of the customers have only the foggiest notion of who Malkovich is. Wasn’t he in that jewel-thief movie? No? It doesn’t matter. He’s a celebrity. They want in. Craig wants the money, and Maxine. But for Lotte, being John Malkovich is a drug. After entering Malkovich’s head when he’s having sex with Maxine, Lotte is so turned on, she considers sexual reassignment. But Maxine only feels attracted to Lotte when she’s in Malkovich: “There’s something about that too-prominent brow and the male-pattern baldness.”
What of Malkovich himself during all this howlingly comic gender bending? Whatever it took for Jonze and producer Michael Stipe to convince the actor to be the ultimate good sport sure paid off. Suppose he’d said no? Would we be watching Being Steve Buscemi? No sweat. Malkovich gives the performance of his life as himself. He’s especially acute in the vanity-skewering, visually amazing scene in which he enters his own head and finds a world where everyone – men, women and children – look like him and repeat only one word: Malkovich.
More whacked-out wonders abound as Craig enters Malkovich and uses his puppeteer’s skill to stay inside permanently. Suddenly, it’s Craig deciding how Malkovich should touch Maxine’s boobs. It’s Craig who pulls the strings that make Malkovich do a wild puppet dance in his underwear. It’s Craig who decides that Malkovich should marry Maxine and switch careers from acting to puppetry. And Malkovich, outdoing Face/Off in the role of a man possessed, riffs on the nature of acting in ways that are as haunting as they are hilarious.
The film’s pièce de rèsistance, stunningly realized by Jonze, is a chase through Malkovich’s subconscious. As a jealous Lotte pursues Maxine through the Malkovich mind – showing the lonely childhood of little Johnny as a bed-wetter and panty sniffer – the film reveals unexpected layers. Amid the silliness of in-jokes about Gary Sinise and star cameos from Sean Penn and Charlie Sheen (“Machine,” says Malkovich in greeting; “Malcatraz,” counters Sheen) and a sinister subplot out of Rosemary’s Baby, Being John Malkovich cuts to the heart of longings that a brush with fame can’t appease. Jonze is a true Puck for the new millennium: He’s given us a movie to dream on.