It's All in His Head

John Cusak gets inside an actor's brain literally -- in the inventive and astonishingly funny 'Being John Malkovich.'

November 05, 1999|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

There's no way to assess "Being John Malkovich," a metaphysical comedy that takes viewers to the edge of consciousness and back in one long, screwball thrill ride, without beginning at the beginning.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a struggling puppeteer whose street-corner adaptations of Abelard and Heloise get him into fistfights while his arch nemesis makes a name for himself with readings of "The Belle of Amherst" by a 16-foot puppet of Emily Dickinson.

Craig's frizzle-haired wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) works at a pet store and deals with her stalled relationship with Craig by taking home all manner of strays.

Craig and Lotte are leading the New York life we rarely see on screen, circling the drain of their own hopes and dreams and secretly blaming each other, when Craig takes a new job as a filing clerk in the mysterious Lestercorp, run by the spry Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). Lestercorp is on floor 7 1/2 of the Mertin-Flemmer building, meaning that everyone who works there must crouch and squirm into half-sized furniture -- including the sexy Maxine (Catherine Keener), upon whom Craig develops an immediate and almost debilitating crush.

One day, while filing, Craig discovers a tiny door in the wall of Lestercorp. Bored, and maybe feeling just a tad self-destructive, he opens it and is immediately sucked down a sticky canal and right into the forehead of the actor John Malkovich. The door, it turns out, is actually a portal into Malkovich's brain; the person who opens it is privy to whatever Malkovich happens to be seeing, doing, saying or thinking at the time. Fifteen minutes after walking around in Malkovich's frontal lobe, Craig is unceremoniously dumped into a culvert alongside the New Jersey Turnpike.

One more word would spoil the wildly inventive joyride of "Being John Malkovich," a movie that not only takes filmgoers beyond the looking glass but inquires into the very nature of the glass itself.

Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by MTV boy wonder Spike Jonze -- both new to the big screen -- this smart, fanciful and brilliantly staged comedy takes a truly one-of-a-kind premise and makes it, of all things, a weirdly profound meditation on consciousness, identity, fame, gender and reality. What's more, it involves a monkey flashback scene at a time when such sequences are all too often avoided in the contemporary cinema.

Aside from his wildly imaginative staging, Jonze eschews the usual MTV-breed of visual razzle-dazzle and instead concentrates on coaxing great performances from his cast of nimble and alert players. (This is the same Spike Jonze who played the Southern redneck in "Three Kings," proving he's almost spookily versatile.) Cusack's rabbity energy has melted away here into a sort of amorphous puddle of disappointment; Craig's stoop is ideally suited for the low ceilings of floor 7 1/2, and his bleary, hangdog sense of defeat is the perfect foil for Keener's witchily flirty energy. But the most astounding transformation here is Diaz, a bombshell who actually manages not only to look frumpy, but also to find her inner loser, a feat no amount of hair and makeup could accomplish alone.

Malkovich deserves cheers for his sporting performance in a role that demands its share of self-deprecation, and filmgoers are treated to a bevy of hilarious cameos. Oops, too much has already been said: Just see "Being John Malkovich," and be grateful that movies are being made that can make us laugh and be astonished at the same time.

`Being John Malkovich'

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

Directed by Spike Jonze

Rated R (language and sexuality)

Running time 112 minutes

Released by USA Films

Sun score ****

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