BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Directed by Spike Jonze

Written by Charlie Kaufman

With John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich and Orson Bean

Distributed by USA Films

****


Plenty of films promise a world of infinite possibilities, but BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is one of the few to sustain that promise through the closing credits. Its hallucinatory narrative defies synopsis, even though the plot isn't all that hard to follow. Words just can't do justice to the disorienting experience of seeing its initial half hour - as unpredictable and inventive as Rivette or Ruiz at their best - for the first time. Although Charlie Kaufman's screenplay eventually conjures up an explanation for the high strangeness on display, the film still retains an air of mystery. Even after two viewings, it seems almost as open-ended as an essay/documentary like Errol Morris' FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL or Chris Marker's SANS SOLEIL. The longer I think about it, the more it seems to be "about" practically everything under the sun: virtual reality, the nature of acting (and other forms of creativity, by implication), the seductive appeal of celebrity, the social construction of gender, and our bodies' fragility, for starters. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH delivers all this, hundreds of laughs, a flashback from a chimp's point of view and the ultimate TWILIGHT ZONE nightmare sequence.

Frustrated by his inability to make a living as a puppeteer and spurred on by his animal-obsessed wife Lotte (a frizzy-haired Diaz), Craig Schwartz (Cusack) decides to take a day job. Thanks to his nimble fingers, he lands a position filing papers at a company owned by the elderly Dr. Lester (Bean), which occupies a "low overhead" space with a 4-foot ceiling between the 7th and 8th floor of an office building. Although Craig is attracted to his co-worker Maxine (Keener), he knows that he's unlikely to get anywhere with the cold, snarly woman. After dropping a file behind a cabinet, he discovers a dark tunnel leading out of his office, which turns out to be a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, who plays himself. It allows a visitor 15 minutes to experience the world through Malkovich's senses, before suddenly ejecting him or her alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. Sensing a new business opportunity, Craig and Maxine start selling tickets after the office closes for the experience of "being John Malkovich."

Judging from Spike Jonze's music videos, his greatest skill seemed to be a knack for clever gimmicks: editing Weezer into a HAPPY DAYS episode for their "Buddy Holly" clip, shooting a man on fire walking in slow-motion in Wax's "California" and capturing an inept community dance troupe performing spastically to Fatboy Slim's "Praise You." When I first heard about the premise of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, I worried that Jonze might not be capable of anything more than stretching a high concept out to feature length, but this thankfully turned out not to be the case. Despite his background, it looks nothing like MTV. Rather than trying to "illustrate" Kaufman's bizarre story with baroque camera angles, wall-to-wall music and super-saturated colors, he has chosen a relatively unobtrusive directorial style, including dim lightning and an overall gray, drab look. This gritty feel even extends to Diaz's decidedly plain make-up and hairdo.

Of course, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is an allegory about the perils of being a celebrity, with Craig and Maxine taking the concept of "stalking" to an entirely new level. No one in the film cares about Malkovich as an actor - in a recurring joke, his apocryphal role as a jewel thief is the only one performance anyone can remember - yet Craig and Maxine's clients jump at the chance to spend $200 to share in the pulse-pounding excitement of watching him read THE WALL STREET JOURNAL or order a rug. However, these satirical jabs at our culture's obsession with fame are as familiar as they are funny. Ultimately, I find the film's t ake on the complexities of sexual identity far more compelling. Most of the frustration it describes, starting with Craig's street performance of ABELARD & HELOISE (in which Heloise dry-humps a wall, causing a bystander whose daughter is watching to beat Craig up), is specifically sexual. Grown too old to live out his fantasies, Dr. Lester has been reduced to describing them in graphic detail to an embarrassed Craig. (I found his frank, horny desperation to continue living far more touching than the folksy "wisdom" of Alvin Straight, the elderly protagonist of David Lynch's overrated THE STRAIGHT STORY.) Craig sees his affection for Maxine go unrequited, only to watch Maxine fall for his wife...as long as she's in Malkovich's body.

Over the past few years, American filmgoers have been warned countless times about the virtualization of reality, but despite some resemblance to films like THE TRUMAN SHOW and eXistenZ, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH isn't really a cautionary tale. Although the portal changes Craig, Lotte and Maxine's lives irrevocably (and not always for the better), the ordinary unhappiness they've suffered hardly seems like an acceptable alternative to the opportunity it offers to pursue one's dreams. Faced with another 30 years of crouching on floor 7 and 1/2 and listening to Dr. Lester's secretary mangle your name, the option of "being John Malkovich" looks pretty damn attractive. The story's complexity only gradually becomes apparent;. Even if Maxine initially comes across as a misogynist caricature (and a reprise of the character Keener played in YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS), she gradually becomes a more sympathetic figure, while Craig turns out to have an unexpected reservoir of cruelty. Were BEING JOHN MALKOVICH content merely to milk their situation for laughs, it would still be one of the year's best films - I haven't laughed this hard in months - but thankfully Jonze and Kaufman realize that absurdist humor can go hand-in-hand with real emotions.

After seeing BEING JOHN MALKOVICH back-to-back with Kimberly Peirce's excellent BOYS DON'T CRY at the New York Film Festival last month, the two films have melted together in my head. The former may be a surrealist fable and the latter a docudrama, but they share the same playful fascination with the malleability of sexual and gender identity and the limits placed on these possibilities by sexist and homophobic violence, not to mention biology and mortality. While celebrating the good ol' American pastime of reinvention, BOYS DON'T CRY also investigates the eerie majesty of our landscapes. In its own way, so does BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: it's a road map of the way we dream now.