Being John Malkovich
directed by Spike Jonze
(Gramercy Pictures, 1999)

Craig Schwartz is a provocative puppeteer, a street artist whose lusty marionette shows cause at least one indignant father to deck him mid-performance. Easy to see why his art's not exactly bringing in the dough.

Poor Schwartz. A sensitive artist who looks a bit like Weird Al Yankovic, Schwartz (John Cusack) is desperate for someone to recognize him as the puppet genius he is. But the world, alas, is not generally impressed with puppeteers. So he heads off for a "real" job, to a business that's seeking a quick file clerk, and ends up between the seventh and eighth floors of an office building, a company where all the ceilings are low, where the elevator won't stop unless you manhandle it and where his boss is odd and his secretary even odder. But it's his discovery of Maxine (Catherine Keener, in an Oscar-nominated performance), a cool, calculating, confident woman, that sets Schwartz's head reeling. He's not available, of course; he has a wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), at home with her menagerie of exotic pets. And it's not like Maxine has any interest in him. But Schwartz thinks Maxine is everything that passive Lotte is not. So Schwartz is reduced to holding puppet conversations with her, a marionette Schwartz telling a marionette Maxine that being a puppeteer is "like being inside another person's skin, thinking differently, moving differently, feeling differently."

And then, one day, he gets his chance to become a puppeteer extraordinaire. Behind a filing cabinet Schwartz finds a small door, a portal that lands him, mystically, inside actor John Malkovich. Malkovich noisily crunching toast. Malkovich reading the paper. He is John Malkovich -- until he's hurled back out of Malkovich and lands at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. He confides in Lotte, who tries out the portal and becomes obsessed with the experience. He confides in Maxine, who immediately spots the business opportunity: $200, and you, too, can be a famous actor, even if only briefly. The two women meet, and obsess about each other. And everyone in this little triangle gets to sleep with everyone else, courtesy of Malkovich's body.

Word eventually gets back to Malkovich, who bursts past a line of people lining up to become him, and demands to try the trip himself. "What kind of man goes through his own portal?" Schwartz wonders, aghast. "We'll find out," says the ever-nonplused Maxine. What follows is a hilarious nightmare of an experience for Malkovich, a chase through his subconscious by Maxine and Lotte and a spiral downward for an ever-more-obsessive Schwartz.

Bizarrely funny stuff from director Spike Jonze, with what may be the only monkey flashback scene in movies today, Being John Malkovich touches on who owns whose soul, rebirth and, not a little, on a culture in which so many people want so desperately to be a celebrity.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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