Forsaking music video for film, director Spike Jonze creates an amazing surreal fantasy. 

The Incredible Lightness of "Being"

The best joke in the incredibly imaginative comedy "Being John Malkovich" is that no one seems to know who John Malkovich is. What they do know is that he's famous; and somehow that's all that matters. It's this contemporary obsession with the state of celebrity that serves as the off-center axis of Spike Jonze's film.

John Cusack is the hero of this surreal "Alex in Wonderland" riff. He's Craig Schwartz, an out-of-work puppeteer who succumbs to the reality of finance over art. Accepting his fate, the angst-ridden Craig finds himself employed as a filing clerk at Lester Corp. This odd little company is on the 7 1/2th floor of an office building where the ceilings are so low the employees have to stoop when they are not sitting at their desks. Unhappily married to the pet-obsessed Lotte (the nearly unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), Craig doesn't seem to mind his unusual surroundings. Particularly since he's falling hard for his new co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener). Maxine, of course, couldn't care less for a starving puppeteer.

Here is where the already strange film turns truly bizarre. One day behind an innocuous-looking filing cabinet, Craig discovers a door that leads to a tunnel to the inside of John Malkovich's brain. And for 15 minutes, Craig experiences the exhilaration of being somebody else. When those 15 minutes are up, Craig finds himself unceremoniously dumped along the New Jersey Turnpike.

Trying to impress the foxy Maxine, Craig tells her of his discovery. Not being a shrewd businesswoman for nothing, Maxine sees the financial possibilities of Craig's mainline into Malkovich. Soon the two are charging $200 bucks a shot to experience the enlightenment contained in being John Malkovich for a quarter-hour.

But neither newfound riches nor the incredible consciousness-expanding experience wins Maxine's heart. In fact, she seems more interested in Craig's wife, Lotte. Although she's not a lesbian, she'll only make love to Lotte when Lotte's sharing Malkovich's consciousness and inhabiting his body. Things get even more bizarrely complex when Maxine begins to date the "real" John Malkovich. In bed, she asks him not to mind it if she calls out Lotte's name. But wait, how can she be sure it's Lotte inside Malkovich and not Craig?

Fortunately, Jonze accomplished the near-impossible: He somehow talked the "real" John Malkovich into playing himself. A serious actor's actor, Malkovich goes along with this self-deprecating joke about his celebrity with an earnestness that gives the movie's surreal tone genuine depth.

Keener plays the single-minded Maxine with a brittle edge, and Cusack turns his character's fussiness into hilarious aggressiveness. Saddled with a bad-hair-day brown wig, Diaz still manages to make Lotte touchingly vulnerable.

But Jonze's talented cast does not end with the leads. Mary Kay Place is terrific as an intimidating secretary to the 105-year-old head of LesterCorp., Orson Bean, and Charlie Sheen turns up in a self-kidding role that's the best work he done in years.

Working with the unbelievably imaginative script penned by Charlie Kaufman, Jonze and company keep the film engaging and silly right to the end. If you follow the identity-switching, mind-bending logic of Kaufman's script, "Being John Malkovich" will have you howling in amazed delight. But if you don't, the film's final scenes may leave you reeling.

Sincerely off-beat, "Being John Malkovich" is a delight for anyone who bemoans the lack of originality in the current cinema. After all, isn't it time to feed your head?


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