[Screen It]

(1999) (John Cusack, John Malkovich) (R)

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Comedy: Having discovered a portal that leads directly into actor John Malkovich's head where visitors can see and hear everything he does, a small group of people vies for ultimate control of the actor and his behavior.
Craig Schwartz (JOHN CUSACK) is a down on his luck artist whose sexually charged street puppet shows are more likely to result in him being punched out than receiving grateful applause. Things aren't much better at home where his marriage to Lotte (CAMERON DIAZ), a pet store employee who literally brings home her work in the form of chimps and other critters, lacks any spark or true love.

Sensing the need for a change and a way to make some money, Craig takes a job as a filing clerk for LesterCorp, a small company located on the 7 floor of a Manhattan high-rise. It's run by Dr. Lester (ORSON BEAN), an older man who thinks he has a speech impediment since his "executive liaison," Floris (MARY KAY PLACE), misunderstands everything everyone says, and only offers one true piece of incentive for Craig.

And that's Maxine (CATHERINE KEENER), a straight-shooting, drop-dead beauty who wants nothing to do with Craig, especially when she learns that he's a puppeteer. Yet, Craig continues trying to impress her despite already being married and Maxine's continually brushing him off.

Things change for Craig, however, when one day he discovers a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet. Making sure that no one else sees what he's doing, Craig cautiously opens the door and then proceeds down the long tunnel behind it. Suddenly the door slams shut and he's sucked down the tunnel and into the head of actor John Malkovich (JOHN MALKOVICH).

Able to see, hear and feel everything that Malkovich does, Craig is forever changed by the experience that lasts only fifteen minutes before unceremoniously dropping him alongside the Jersey turnpike. Excited about the discovery, Craig tells Maxine, who sensing a profitable venture, decides to join forces with Craig and charge "tourists" several hundred dollars for fifteen minutes of being John Malkovich.

Soon, the activity becomes quite popular, especially between Maxine and Lotte who develop a lesbian love affair of sorts with Maxine seducing Malkovich while Lotte's inside his head. As Craig then competes with Lotte for Maxine by starting to control Malkovich's actions, the actor slowly begins to figure out what's going on. From that point on, a great battle ensues with many people trying to control, and thus be, John Malkovich.

OUR TAKE: 8.5 out of 10
Have you ever had one of those days where you just didn't feel like yourself? Where you did something completely out of character or suddenly had the urge to change your clothing, hairstyle or occupation? Ever experienced blackouts, lapses of memory or dreams and/or fantasies of living out someone else's life?

If so, "Being John Malkovich" may just explain such feelings and behavior. An "Alice in Wonderland" like allegory of seeing life through someone else's eyes, stepping into someone else's shoes, learning to love yourself for who you are, or simply coming off as the absolute weirdest movie you'll see all year, this highly imaginative film is nothing short of a wild time at the movies no matter what you might ultimately think it's really about.

Thematically and visually similar to the creative and otherworldly films of former Monty Python troupe member, Terry Gilliam ("Brazil," "Tim Bandits"), this picture marks the impressive feature film directing debut of Spike Jonze.

A highly acclaimed music video and TV commercial director (he created the fun "Happy Days" inspired Weezer music video for their song, "Buddy Holly" and that clever Nissan truck commercial where the sleeping guy and his dog take a ride down a hilly street in a recliner), Jonze (who also appeared as an actor in "Three Kings") creates an incredibly memorable and distinctive movie world.

In fact, it's so completely removed from the majority of mundane, cookie-cutter pablum that Hollywood regularly delivers, that moviegoers and critics alike will probably jump for joy simply due to it truthfully following the old Python adage, "And now for something completely different."

Yet, unlike many films that start with an inventive sounding "high concept" premise but then fail to deliver the goods after that, and which usually leave an "it could've been really good" aftertaste, this one keeps offering ever more imaginative and often quite hilarious bits as it progresses. In fact, and again unlike most films, this one's certainly not predictable and should keep most viewers wondering how it will end.

Working from Charlie Kaufman's wild, (and surprisingly) first produced screenplay (that clearly deserves an Oscar nomination), Jonze literally and liberally mixes the surreal with the realistic and some outrageously funny bits with others that are more thought provoking.

For instance, what other film deals one moment with profound philosophical examinations of who we are and what constitutes a soul, and then goes into what has to be the first ever chimpanzee point of view flashback that even includes subtitles for those of us who don't speak ape-talk? While to some that may make the film sound like it's nothing but silly or perhaps even downright stupid, the highly inspired way in which everything unfolds and then connects together is nothing short of inspired.

That's not even considering a whole passel of clever tidbits the film continually offers. There's the office located on the five-foot high, 7 floor (explained as "low overhead" in a double meaning), the executive who thinks he has a speech impediment because his secretary -- excuse me, "executive liaison" -- comically misunderstands what everyone says, and a fabulous scene where everyone literally looks like John Malkovich, the items on a menu list nothing but Malkovich, and every word spoken is -- you guessed it -- Malkovich.

Just like Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," the film deals with the central character entering a completely surreal world filled with odd, but colorful characters that confuse and/or mesmerize him and even has a "rabbit hole" of sorts to complete the similarity. Of course Alice didn't conspire to take over another person's soul, but that's part of the wicked fun of this tale.

To pull off such an ambitious and clearly unusual production, Jonze had one big obstacle in his way, and that was signing twice Oscar nominated actor John Malkovich to play himself. Or more accurately, a version of himself. Fortunately, the capricious actor and star of films such as "In the Line of Fire" and "Rounders" was game for the role and delivers a wonderfully daffy turn as not only the public version of himself, but also a Steve "All of Me" Martin-like turn as a man controlled by someone inside him.

The highly versatile and charismatic John Cusack ("Pushing Tin," "Grosse Pointe Blank") plays the master puppeteer and gives a darkly fun take on his "Wonderland" character. Scruffy and somewhat of an opportunist, Cusack's character may not be likable, but he more than ably leads us through his surreal journey.

Cameron Diaz ("There's Something About Mary," "My Best Friend's Wedding") is nearly unrecognizable under her unkempt, frizzy hairdo but delivers a decent take on her homely character, while Catherine Keener ("8MM," "Your Friends and Neighbors") is appropriately standoffish in a seductive way that constantly reminded me of Linda "Men in Black" Fiorentino. Supporting performances from the likes of Orson Bean (TV's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman") as Craig's dirty- minded boss to Mary Kay Place ("The Big Chill") as his secretary who misunderstands everything everyone says, are equally as good.

Although the film may be and/or get a little too dark for some viewers when it delves into the main characters' selfish, "me" attitudes and behavior, it never pushes its black comedy material to unacceptable levels. Instead, such moments only add to the multilayered, wickedly humorous and definitely surreal proceedings that not only make this the year's most imaginative film, but also one of the best.

Having to sit through umpteen formulaic teen-based romantic comedies, predictable mismatched cop action and/or comedy flicks and more than enough "scary" slasher films, I heartily enjoyed this original piece of filmmaking and applaud the somewhat daring, but obviously winning efforts of the film's cast and crew, including music video veteran K.K. Barrett for his demented set designs and composer Carter Burwell ("Fargo" and the rest of the Coen brothers' films) for his highly effective score.

While most viewers will probably get a big kick out of this film, one must remember, however, that the next time you feel like you need a change or makeover in your life, there might be someone else looking out at you from your reflective gaze in a mirror.

The cinematic cousin to "Alice and Wonderland" and the film equivalent of Disney World's "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" where grinning riders are feverishly whipped along a track not knowing, but enjoyably anticipating what the next wild turn might bring, this dark and comically surprising film is just as much fun. As such, "Being John Malkovich" rates as an 8.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 22, 1999 / Posted October 29, 1999

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