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by: James Berardinelli

These days, critics (and non-critics, for that matter) are fond of complaining about how multiplexes are populated by cookie-cutter motion pictures that follow safe, formula-derived patterns designed to please audiences who want a different version of a story they have already seen dozens of times. And, while there's some truth to the maxim that "there's nothing new under the sun," Being John Malkovich tries hard to be the exception. Admittedly, the themes addressed by the movie - those of identity, celebrity, and manipulation - are familiar, but the manner in which director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman address them is fresh and inventive. I'm not arrogant enough to claim that nothing like Being John Malkovich has ever previously been committed to celluloid, but, if it has been, I haven't seen it.

This is the first movie to be directed by Jonze, who cut his teeth doing TV commercials and music videos. Unless you're isolated from all aspects of pop culture, you've probably seen his work. (He also has one of the four primary roles in Three Kings.) As is the case with many of the so-called "MTV filmmakers," Jonze displays a strong sense of style. However, unlike most of his contemporaries, he does not rely on quick cuts and visual gimmicks. He has sound, mature cinematic instincts.

Kaufman's script is not constrained by viewer expectations. For about 110 minutes, he pushes the envelope, taking us in new and unexpected directions. Every time I thought I recognized where Being John Malkovich was headed, the movie surprised me. The screenplay is as funny as it is clever. Some of the jokes are of the "big laugh" variety, but few are representative of the cheap shots and dumb humor that have become commonplace in '90s offerings. Being John Malkovich revels in smart comedy instead of wallowing in the opposite. And, alongside the laughter, there's plenty of material for contemplation. Cinematically speaking, this is a well-balanced, multi-course meal.

The premise is as intriguing and offbeat as it is difficult to adequately describe in a few sentences. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a master puppeteer, but, after being out of work for a while, he is becoming restless, so his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), suggests that he swallow his pride and get a job - any job. Since he has nimble fingers, he decides to apply for a position as a filing clerk. The job in question is on the 7 1/2th story of a New York City office building - a floor that is four feet from carpet to ceiling ("low overhead") and can only be reached by stopping the elevator between the 7th and 8th stories and prying open the door with a crow bar. After a successful interview with the firm's sex-obsessed, carrot juice-drinking, 105 year old boss, Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), Craig gets the job and meets his co-workers, including Floris (Mary Kay Place), the hearing-impaired secretary, and Maxine (Catherine Keener), a sexy brunette who allows Craig to flirt with her even though she has no interest.

One day, while searching for a lost file behind a cabinet in his office, Craig discovers a hidden door. Venturing through it, he is sucked into a portal that lands him inside the brain of John Malkovich, where Craig can look out the actor's eyes and experience what he feels. It's the ultimate in voyeurism, but it doesn't last for long. 15 minutes after Craig enters Malkovich, the portal spits him out, dropping him from the sky and landing him alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. He returns home and tells his wife, who wants to try the portal for herself. He also reveals the secret to Maxine, and, while he ponders "the metaphysical can of worms" the portal unleashes, she sees it as an opportunity to sell tickets: $200 a pop to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes.

For those who think I have given away too much, this is only the background and basic setup presented in the film's first half-hour.


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