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Friday, Sept. 29, 2000

The importance of being Malkovich

Hollywood has a quick and dirty way to assess star-power: the viewer, as conventional wisdom has it, must look at your star and either want to be him/her, or shag him/her.

Taking that proposition to some rather absurd extremes is "Being John Malkovich," the off-the-wall comedy by newbie director Spike Jonez (known for his music-video work for Sonic Youth, Bjork, et al., and as an actor in "Three Kings"). This is one of those wonderfully weird and idiosyncratic films that breaks so many "rules" of modern formula-filmmaking that you just shake your head in blissful disbelief, wondering how in the world the investors were talked into green-lighting millions of dollars to make this madness. (Actually, the studio suits passed -- thank R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and his production company, Single Cell Films, for bringing this one to life.)

Then again, as far as "high concept" goes, this is a pretty tight one: Frustrated arty puppeteer (John Cusack) in a passionless marriage (to a disheveled Cameron Diaz) takes on a strange office job, where he discovers a hidden doorway that leads down a dark tunnel into John Malkovich's mind. (You with me?) Anyone who enters this portal gets to "be" John Malkovich for 15 minutes, before being returned to reality, unceremoniously dropped by the New Jersey turnpike.

The puppeteer, Craig, first sees this as a chance to get in the good graces of his sexy coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener), a sharp femme-fatale who's been giving him the brush-off. Together they form a business, charging customers $200 a pop for the chance to be Malkovich and enjoy their 15 minutes of fame.

The trouble comes when the puppeteer's wife Lotte takes the Malkovich ride and finds that she enjoys being a male. Not only that, she finds herself attracted to Maxine, who Lotte catches in mid-seduction of the flummoxed actor. Poor Malkovich becomes a sort of sexual interface for the women, much to the irritation of Craig, who decides to take matters into his own manipulative hands.

Where this all leads is far too amusing to spoil by revealing here, but suffice it to say, in an age of by-the-numbers three-act scripts, the careening twists of "Malkovich" are refreshingly unpredictable. What really sets this film apart is its ability to move in any direction it pleases; if a scene calls for, say, a flashback from a chimp's POV, or a chase scene through the detritus of Malkovich's subconscious, well, why not?

Scriptwriter Charles Kaufman avoids sticking to any obvious, monolithic theme, which allows his story to flit about like a butterfly before finally delivering a few well-placed stings, giving a strangely dark edge to the film's stoned sensibility.

Jonez and Kaufman give us a much overdue embrace of the nonsensical, the likes of which hasn't been seen since Luis Bunuel. Like Bunuel, the filmmakers set up reasonably "straight" characters and have them react "realistically" to a patently absurd situation. In "BJM," this leads to much Dada-esque humor, but also serves as a twisted metaphor for our obsession with the private lives of celebrities, and the way in which we as vampiric voyeurs feed off them.

The film alludes, ever so lightly, to all sorts of deeper readings, from the Freudian (note the pooplike gunk that lines the "tunnel" to Malkovich's brain) to the ontological ("a metaphysical can of worms," as Craig puts it). But don't think too hard. It's primarily just a clever parable, an ironic take on the timeless premise of cinema: the desire to be somebody else.

The pleasures here are simple ones: creative story, clever jokes, and -- especially -- a wonderful cast. Cusack, as always, is great, capturing the manic-depressive swings between self-importance and self-pity that define the "frustrated artist." Diaz dares to be frumpy as well as sexually confused, but it's Keener (previously seen in indie flicks such as "Living in Oblivion") who is the real revelation here, sporting a gleefully evil grin as she tells Craig where to go, or recklessly coming on to Malkovich in public ("Actually, Mr. Malkovich, my voice is the least intriguing part of me").

Malkovich, of course, was essential to this project, as his uniquely affected screen presence can certainly give rise to all sorts of speculation as to what he must be like offscreen; "BJM" exploits this to the max. (That is to say, just try to imagine how dull "Being Kevin Costner" would have been.) Kudos to Malkovich for allowing the filmmakers to have some fun at his expense. It's all too easy for an audience to believe that he really would seduce a date with a line like "Shall we to the boudoir?" Ironically, he's so fantastically funny here that he may end up being best remembered for playing "himself."

"Being John Malkovich" is playing at Togeki in Ginza and other theaters.

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