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Being John Malkovich is the best darn existential comedy yet.

By Coury Turczyn

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  So why John Malkovich? Take a look at the guy: Middle-age paunch, male pattern baldness, a cross-eyed degenerate cast to his gaze. By any definition of Hollywood star appeal, he really ought to be sweeping sidewalks for a living. Yet, he is not just one of the "great actors of American cinema and stage," he is also a sex symbol, a brand name. Malkovich! What the heck?

Maybe it's because he is both familiar and mysterious, a person you can recognize and admire even though you don't know much about him. Never really submitting to the Entertainment Tonight skunkworks of fame, Malkovich has preferred to keep his talent in the spotlight rather than his private life. In an age when audiences must know the innermost details of celebrity hygiene, he has managed to retain his mystique.

So who better, really, to be the subject of a film about our desire to live out other people's lives? The irony of Being John Malkovich is right in the title; imagining yourself to be Ricky Martin or Julia Roberts might make sense—but who'd want to be John Malkovich? Sadly, the answer is: lots of people who are convinced that his life (or perhaps any life) must surely be preferable to theirs.

In a year of great movies in just about every genre, Being John Malkovich is one of a kind; the press kit calls it "an outrageous comedic fantasia," and for once the flaks speak the truth. Consider it a particularly strange Twilight Zone episode crossed with an indie film's sense of offbeat humor, and you might be half-way there. Yet it's not just quirkiness for its own sake, like most hip alternative comedies of the day—it's weirdness with a point. For all of Malkovich's Monty Python-esque characters and settings, its silliness is balanced by an earnest exploration of identity and how we can willingly lose it in someone else's persona.

MTV auteur and Three Kings co-star Spike Jonze has almost perfectly executed what must have seemed like an unfilmable script by first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Here's the one-liner: A filing clerk discovers a portal in his office that leads to John Malkovich's mind, allowing him to see through his eyes and eventually control his actions. (I can just imagine the trail of puzzled studio execs: "Soooo... can we have this guy force Malkovich to kill the president or something?") This is not the usual kind of whopper audiences will swallow (as it does not involve serial killers, asteroids, or Satan), but Jonze underplays it to wonderful comic effect, despite sometimes getting bogged down in the mechanics of the plot gimmick.

For instance, when down-on-his-luck puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) forces himself to apply for a filing clerk job, he must go to the 7 1/2 floor of a Manhattan office building. That means the floor is only five feet high. Stooped beneath the fluorescent lights, workers trudge through their duties as if nothing is particularly abnormal (the purest visual metaphor for corporate life I've seen). At first puzzled, Craig adapts to it like all the others once he gets the job—until he discovers the portal behind a filing cabinet. Once sucked through, he enjoys the sensual delight of watching John Malkovich brush his teeth. Fifteen minutes later, he is physically expelled into a New Jersey ditch.

Ecstatic, he tries to impress the subject of his unrequited office lust, Maxine (Catherine Keener), with his amazing discovery. Rather than trying it herself, she realizes its economic potential: they should sell tickets to this Malkovich ride. Soon, people are showering, reading, eating, and ordering towels as John Malkovich—and lining up for the pleasure. When Craig's wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) tries it, she finds that she really likes being a man—so much so that she ponders a sex change and an affair with Maxine, creating a thoroughly perverse love triangle (particularly when Craig assumes control of Malkovich and...).

Being John Malkovich is entirely unpredictable, which is a rare commodity in the film world (Rushmore is the only other true contender this year). Each scene piles on fresh ideas and new imagery. Even the performances are unexpected: Gone are Cusack's twinkly sneer and smart-ass retorts. Vanquished is Diaz's sex-doll glamour. Together, they play a pathetic, frizzy-haired nerd couple who seem to feed on each other's eccentricity, sealed up together in an apartment cramped with animals and oddly human puppets, both feeling unfulfilled. These are probably the bravest performances in either actor's career.

But Malkovich as Malkovich is a revelation. Who else could play himself so fearlessly, without reserve? It's not that we get a peak at the "real" Malkovich (who appears to be utterly mundane), but we get to see Malkovichness unleashed, from semi-nude interpretive dance to a world populated entirely by Malkoviches. (No, that doesn't make much sense—you'll just have to see the movie.) And when Malkovich plays himself as if John Cusack were animating his limbs, it's quite nearly a tour de force...enough to make you think that being John Malkovich is an alluring alternative.

Of course, after they see this directing debut, a lot of fanboys will wish they were Spike Jonze...

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