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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 10/28/1999, B: Peter Keough,

Identity crisis

The joy of Being John Malkovich

by Peter Keough

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie Kaufman. With John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, John Malkovich, and Charlie Sheen. A USA Films release. At the Nickelodeon and the Harvard Square and in the suburbs.

Mind games

For a film about the wispy nature of identity, Being John Malkovich has lot of big egos involved, and they are all uncharacteristically self-effacing when talking about the project.

Such as John Malkovich himself, who in the course of the movie is misidentified by a cabdriver as "John Mapplethorpe," is compelled to describe himself as an "overrated sack of shit," and does cartwheels in a number called "Dance of Disillusionment and Despair" dressed only in a bedspread.

"Whenever I see Malkovich doing the dance of despair," says the director Spike Jonze, who in person is surprisingly similar to the hayseed soldier he plays in Three Kings, "I just can't believe that he did our movie."

"I wasn't flattered when I read the script," admits Malkovich. "No, I didn't call my lawyer, I called my partner and asked him to meet with the writer because I thought it was so well written. The part was not a challenge. More a kind of a delight. I'm fairly secure, but I think a lot of actors would have done it. I think they overestimate the vanity of actors. I mean, I don't think so many actors I know would mind making fun of themselves."

So why John Malkovich? Like identity itself, the choice was both arbitrary and absolute. "If you make it about Bruce Willis, if you make it about Bill Hurt, I think it could be hilarious," says Malkovich. "It might be more vulgar, it might be less vulgar, it might be more obscure, it might be less obscure. It might be anything, but that just isn't what it was."

"It's pretty easy if you take a guy who courts publicity, who has his Planet Hollywood," adds John Cusack, who plays the film's hapless protagonist, puppeteer (puppetry is "the art form of the new millennium," according to Cusack) Craig Schwartz. "Then it becomes a very simple, broad satire. But with John that won't work. It's meaner to attack John Malkovich. It's really low."

Hence Jonze's trepidation when he first approached John Malkovich with the opportunity to play John Malkovich. "I went in there with the tactic of fear and I was very intimidated by him. But then, by the end I was cuddling with him."

"Spike is not exactly famously articulate," notes Malkovich. "He isn't really a verbal person. I had to draw out what he saw, and what he thought he was going to make. It wasn't a matter of convincing me. I just wanted to talk to him and talk to the writer [Charlie Kaufman]. I wanted to tell them what I thought it would be important not to lose. Our conversation was pretty straightforward: how we saw the film, who we saw being in it, why we wanted them, what tone we hoped it to have."

Cusack's first responses to the script were admiration and doubt. "I thought the only way someone would do it was if someone maxes out their credit cards and does it out of a van. But I wanted to do this. I said, this is the best piece of writing, the most original words I have heard in a while. I thought it was so startling that every time you read the script, you kept thinking the bottom has got to drop out, you can't keep this premise going. Then Malkovich shows up and goes into his own portal . . . "

"I think it's very accurately put when I come out of the portal and I'm screaming at Craig, `In the name of God, that portal must be sealed,' " Malkovich observes of that scene. "That pretty much says it all."

What, then, is the meaning of Being? "Basically, it's about whatever you want it to be," says Jonze. "If you go away thinking anything, then that's great. If you go away just laughing, then that's great. Basically, I think I've always just loved portals."

Would anyone shell out $200 to spend 10 minutes in John Malkovich's head? That's one of the shakier premises in Spike Jonze's effervescent and profound feature debut, Being John Malkovich, and to judge from the actor's recent track record on the screen it would seem unlikely. But Being is less about celebrity -- one of its ironies is that nobody in the movie really knows or cares who John Malkovich is -- than it is about escape. To spend 10 minutes inside somebody else's head is the allure of all art, the chance to break out of the solitary confinement of the self.

Jonze, though best known for his whiz-bang, surreal music videos and TV commercials, has a feel for the mind-forged manacles that keep the self imprisoned. Following the brilliantly byzantine screenplay by newcomer Charlie Kaufman, he gleefully unlocks the interconnected cells constructed by fantasies, jobs, ambitions, relationships, and the allure of the media, compassionately exposing those poor souls trapped inside and isolated from their own experience.

Like puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, nearly hidden, like much of the rest of the cast, beneath a hideous haircut), who's first seen as his own puppet. What appears to be a lifesize Craig marionette leaps on his master's strings in a piece called "Dance of Disillusionment and Despair" involving music from Béla Bartók and a smashed mirror. Wild applause follows, but it's all in Craig's head -- he's onanistically playing with dolls in his basement.

Meanwhile, upstairs, his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, her grin and giggle nearly buried under a mousy mop), is not faring much better. Instead of puppets, she has pets -- the ailing iguanas and apes she brings home from the pet store where she works. At least she's bringing in an income, and her quiet suggestion that Craig get a job is met with vain pronouncements about art. After being beaten up by a father outraged by the sight of Abélard and Héloïse puppets dry-humping their cell walls in one of his sidewalk performances, Craig accedes to Lotte's request and answers an ad in the paper for an "experienced file clerk of short stature."

The 7-1/2th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in Manhattan where Craig starts his new job is a cramped David Lynch-like wonderland. There he meets haughty co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener, at last playing a bitch who is sympathetic), with whom he falls hopelessly in love. By chance he also discovers a portal to John Malkovich's mind behind a file cabinet (a tiny door leads to a passage resembling a womb or an escape tunnel from Stalag 17 that sucks one into the experience of John Malkovich eating toast or ordering from a catalogue followed by expulsion onto the New Jersey Turnpike). In a desperate attempt to win over Maxine, Craig agrees to join her in a covert scheme to sell tickets to John Malkovich's mind.

That's just the beginning, of course, and things get sexually and metaphysically messy when Lotte enters the portal (she returns thinking she is a man trapped in a woman's body when she was in fact briefly a woman trapped in a man's body) and falls in love with Maxine, who falls in love with her (but "only as Malkovich"), inciting the jealous and ineffectual Craig to drastic measures in one of the most mind-boggling love quadrangles in the history of movies. And when Malkovich enters his own portal, things get really nightmarish, giving the idea of being one's own best audience an especially nasty twist.

Being's insight is that all escapes are deeper traps, and that dreams of escaping one's self-imprisonment lead to ever more diabolical confrontations with it. So why is this such a fun movie? Perhaps it's Jonze's genuine delight in the media excesses, celebrity absurdities, and pseudo-artistic pretensions he parodies, or the humane genius of, for example, casting Orson Bean as an enigmatic centenarian whose dread of the ultimate confinement of death leads to all the other confinements.

Jonze is a blithe puppeteer himself, and his canny self-referentiality is nonetheless ingenuous, though at times he gets a little too cute and frivolous for his own good -- is it necessary to include a flashback to a chimp's repressed memory? -- and the film in the later going labors somewhat with contrivance. Regardless, it's one of the most philosophically provocative screwball comedies ever made. As abstruse and bewildering as Being gets -- the questions start with what happens to the piece of wood Craig leaves behind in his first trip through the portal, and they don't end when it appears that Malkovich contains multitudes -- it can't be beat for escapist entertainment.