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At the Movies: Being John Malkovich

DAVID GERMAINOctober 26, 1999

If whimsy translated into box-office success, ``Being John Malkovich″ would be the year’s runaway blockbuster.

Fabulously funny and delightfully disturbed, ``Being John Malkovich″ is the ultimate voyeur movie, a dark and at times malevolent take on what it’s like to be in someone else’s skull, looking out.

Extreme adjectives don’t do this film justice. So here’s a staccato rundown of the plot:

Puppeteer takes file clerk job. Puppeteer finds tunnel behind file cabinet, crawls through. Puppeteer is sucked into mind of John Malkovich. Puppeteer drops out of sky along Jersey Turnpike 15 minutes later.

After that, ``Being John Malkovich″ gets really weird.

The film stars John Cusack as puppeteer Craig Schwartz, Cameron Diaz as his pet-shop keeper wife, Lotte, Malkovich as Malkovich, and Catherine Keener as Maxine, the beautiful romantic interest for all three.

Craig lives for his puppeteering craft but can’t make a living with his performances on the streets of New York. With Lotte doting over a chimpanzee, an iguana and a menagerie of other pets in their apartment, Craig’s marriage is unfulfilling.

When he takes a clerical job on an office building’s 7 1/2th floor _ with literally low overhead in its 5-foot, 3-inch ceilings _ he becomes enamored of Maxine, who rebuffs him with an icy cut: ``You’re not someone I could get interested in, Craig. You play with dolls.″

Maxine changes her mind, however, once Craig discovers a portal into the actor’s mind, allowing people to experience all things Malkovich for brief interludes. Craig, Maxine and eventually Lotte, who also becomes smitten with Maxine, use their entry into Malkovich’s body and soul to their own advantage.

For Maxine and Lotte, the notion of being John Malkovich offers a chance to live out gender-bending sexual desires.

``Do you have any idea what it’s like to have two people look at you with total lust and devotion through the same pair of eyes?″ Maxine asks.

For Craig, being John Malkovich is a shot at the ultimate puppeteering gig as he gradually applies his talent to making Malkovich do his bidding.

``It’s just a matter of practice before Malkovich is just another puppet hanging next to my work table,″ Craig proclaims.

Early on, Craig wrestles with the philosophical implications of being John Malkovich.

``Do you see what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?″ he asks Maxine.

Pragmatic, Maxine replies: ``We’ll sell tickets. Tickets to Malkovich.″

In the end, everyone gets a piece of Malkovich, including a band of old folks led by Orson Bean, who as Craig’s centenarian boss has his own nefarious designs on the actor.

Malkovich himself gets a taste of what being John Malkovich means. In a surreal scene, the actor passes through the portal into a nightmare world peopled by Malkoviches, and every word spoken has three syllables: Mal-ko-vich.

It’s a testament to outlandishness that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman could dream up such a premise and actually see it land in theaters. It’s an absurdist’s delight that first-time director Spike Jonze, a music-video veteran, could execute it so cleverly. And it’s an audacious bit of self-immolation that Malkovich was willing to play victim to identity rape and put himself on the line in such a warped way.

The cast is superb. Cusack combines brooding scruffiness with almost evil earnestness as he realizes he may finally live the life he wants by co-opting someone else’s. Diaz is sweetly hapless and nearly unrecognizable under a mop of frizzy brunette hair. Keener is beguilingly mean and self-assured.

And Malkovich is, well, Malkovich, reacting with believable anger, curiosity and terror to an unbelievably grotesque situation.

The film features a handful of nice cameos by actors playing themselves, commenting on the strange twists Malkovich’s sexual and professional life take.

As funny and fresh as ``Being John Malkovich″ is on the surface, somber themes of bitter envy, vicious vanity and theft of self burble throughout. The characters have no moral compunctions about insinuating themselves into someone else’s persona, squashing another person’s soul to make room for their own.

Consequences are ambiguous. There is punishment for at least one of the guilty, reward for others. There is torment for the guiltless, and the implication of future suffering for the truly innocent.

In its uncertain morality, ``Being John Malkovich″ is kind of like being human.

``Being John Malkovich″ is distributed by USA Films and is rated R.

___

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.

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