Being John Malkovich
Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Charlie Kaufman

Starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener


Being John Malkovich

Maybe there's hope for us all yet. Maybe Charlie Kaufman will write another screenplay and Spike Jonze will direct it and everybody who's in "Being John Malkovich" will come back for the reunion and give us another delicious film.

Picture yourself -- as the movie asks us metaphorically to do -- standing, or rather crouching, at a portal that leads you to somewhere inside John Malkovich's brain, where you can share with him everything from eating his toast to reading his Wall Street Journal to ordering towels from a catalog. And then, if you're really lucky, you can be there when he has sex with Catherine Keener, changes careers in mid-path to become a puppeteer, and has sex again. Of course, your own fifteen minutes of, let's say, the inside track on Mr. Malkovich and his life will end with a short drop onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Is there more? Of course. How did we get from wherever it is we used to live to this hallowed spot? Well, it all begins with street puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), actually a marionetteer (strings and dancing legs), whose idea of a good show is Héloise and Abélard having masturbatory sessions on the street corner as they speak their love letters, for which production he gets a split lip from an offended father of a spellbound child. He's also at the mercy of a competitor who gets great news coverage for his 60-foot Emily Dickinson reading from "The Belle of Amherst" off a bridge.

Craig and his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, unrecognizable in her '70s curly perm and showing nice acting chops against type), live in a windowless basement apartment with her pet chimp, parrot, and iguana. Lotte has been (barely) supporting them for years, and encourages Craig to get a job. He's intrigued by one asking for 'fast hands,' which turns out to be a filing job with the Lester Corp., located on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of your basic commercial office building, which you get to by pushing the Emergency Stop button on the elevator and using a crowbar to pry open the door. There, under the 5-foot ceilings, he meets the infinitely sexy Maxine (Catherine Keener, who has something for everybody to love and be horny about), and also discovers the portal.

That's all you need to know about the first fifteen minutes of the film, other than that at this point things begin to get strange. You'll meet Charlie Sheen, Brad Pitt, and Sean Penn, under less than ideal circumstances, and you'll find out more about the fragility of traditional sex roles than you expected to in a lifetime. In other words, you'll fall in love with this film. It's the most deliciously brazen American film in years -- along with last summer's "South Park" -- and maybe, just maybe, it signals the beginning of a new respect for invention and originality.

Is it perfect? No. The screenplay, by Charlie Kaufman, goes strangely and needlessly crazy at the end, and throws away the clincher of what might have been the great deadpan sendup of American life and convention, but that shouldn't stop you. There's enough wit in the rest of the film to keep you happy for days.

This is Kaufman's first produced screenplay, and we can only imagine what it took to find production money and make distribution arrangements, but it is certainly a tribute to the name actors involved that they did the film with not a moment of self-consciousness. Director Spike Jonze, known for his music videos (and his acting role in "Three Kings"), plays everything absolutely straight, giving the actors breathing room but never letting the pace go slack. Malkovich, playing himself -- or rather a character named John Horatio Malkovich (the film gives him a middle name) -- is perfectly cast in an otherwise impossible role, because over the years we've known him only by the characters he plays. He doesn't ever project a 'Malkovich' personality outside his roles, in anything, so he doesn't have to worry about violating an image. Sexually ambiguous, almost languorous in his screen work, Malkovich -- the real one -- is an inspired choice as the vessel for others to use in living out their fantasies.    

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