Pull the Strings!

The power of puppetry propels Being John Malkovich.

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Being John Malkovich.
A grubby John Cusack, playin' with puppets.
A grubby John Cusack, playin' with puppets.
The first rule of Being John Malkovich is you do not look at the poster for Being John Malkovich! Sorry to crib from that inferior tale of incredible shrinking men, but really -- avoid that poster, despite its curious, clinical design, until after you've seen the movie. Plot-spoiling critics are harmless compared to what these filmmakers have opted to disclose in their own promotional art.

That said, do see the movie, because Being John Malkovich is an audacious chunk of sheer cinematic subversion, a fractured fairy tale boasting twice as much daft cleverness as most pabulum on the menu these days. Lifting liberally from Freud and Fellini, Carroll and Craven, Malkovich is a whimsical, phantasmagorical dive down the psychosexual rabbit hole. Smart people will relish its temerariousness, average people will smile awkwardly and comment that it's "kinda different," and dimly lit people may mistake it for the Elmo movie and drool quietly in the back rows. So it's a movie for everyone.

"You know, I was thinking," chirps Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz, bohoed beyond recognition) to Craig (John Cusack, beardie-weirdie), her ground-down husband of ten years, "maybe you'd feel better if you got a job or something." We've already met Craig via his breathtaking work with marionettes (the lush opening titles, set to Bartòk's "Allegro"), and we're swiftly introduced to his real world, a second-rate apartment the couple share with a clutch of convalescent animals she brings home from her job at a pet store.

"Lotte, we've been over this," he defensively quips. "Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate." The stage is set: starving artist versus the cruelties of an artless world, right? Well, sort of. Once it's established that Craig is truly suffering (overshadowed by a gimmicky competitor, assaulted for leeching lewdness into Verdi -- both segments wickedly funny), his nimble fingers actually land him work . . . as a file clerk. LesterCorp is, like most office environments, an incubator for insanity, here saliently illustrated by secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place, perky and profoundly whacked) and boss Dr. Lester (Orson Bean, deadpan vulgar genius). In this freakish setting, located on an office building's seven-and-a-half floor and featuring ceilings only slightly over five feet high, Craig meets (and, soon enough, desperately lusts after) Maxine (Catherine Keener, brass tacks), who deems him pathetic. Something is ready to snap.

That snap comes in the form of a tiny hidden doorway Craig discovers behind a filing cabinet, a doorway that leads to a narrow, murky tunnel, which in turn leads directly into the psyche of . . . you guessed it. (Nice work. Join the smart people if you're not already among them.) Operating on the notion that a quarter-hour stay inside the senses of John Malkovich is a wildly covetable, marketable experience (even to Malkovich himself, providing the movie's most uproariously brilliant scene), the action swiftly shifts into high gear, becoming a wry study of power and persona.

Most of it flies, too, which is a credit to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, making their respective feature debuts as screenwriter and director. Kaufman has concocted a successful stream-of-consciousness narrative that will have writing instructors cowering behind their weary paradigms. His bizarre, dreamlike fluidity would be cake aplenty, but he also piles on rich dialogue like an avalanche of frosting. This wit would be for naught in incapable hands, but director Jonze gets the joke so well -- throughout -- that he continually downplays it. For an artist who has been building his career on spectacle (Björk and Pharcyde videos, award-winning commercials), his choices here are remarkably evenhanded, an everyday camouflage concealing wondrous absurdities.

Performances are shrewd and knowing throughout. Malkovich himself breezes through this freakishness as if it's just another day's work, which is perfect. It would be preposterous to suggest that a project like this could avoid being an ego trip for its eponymous star, but the soft-spoken thespian strides through both lauding and lampooning with equal dignity and dry humor. Cusack is in fine form as always, this time mixing the woe, ascension, and decline of a creator into his patented likable-guy routine.

Because this is a dark comedy, somebody has to suffer. In this sense, the movie is in sync with its contemporaries: Its verdict feels forced, reactionary, and a bit unjust. The movie sweeps this aside, however, with its fascinating theme of puppetry, with everyone yanking someone else's strings. A secondary premise, blatantly spelled out in the poster art, is silly science-fiction malarkey, but it's still a fair sight more imaginative than most material in studio films -- which is why, despite its glitches, Being John Malkovich is so refreshing.

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