MISTAKEN IDENTITY IS an old comic tradition, but there's nothing mistaken or traditional about the identities assumed in Spike Jonze's audacious and wildly inventive new comedy. Instead of Shakespearean lovers accidentally wooing the wrong partner, the players in this love triangle brazenly set out to steal a new identity—that of John Malkovich. Of course the actor doesn't realize at first that he's to be the target—indeed the very stage—of the romantic intrigues of three very self-obsessed New Yorkers. It's not all that easy, after all, to imagine someone physically inhabiting your cranium.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
directed by Spike Jonze
starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich
opens October 29 at Neptune
First among the invaders is the pretentious, self-pitying street puppeteer Craig (John Cusack), who's unhappily married to a woman harboring a menagerie of psychologically traumatized animals in their squalid apartment. Played by an almost unrecognizably frumpy Cameron Diaz, Lotte presses him to take a day job "until this whole puppet thing turns around"—the very ridiculousness of his art becoming the film's best running joke. At work, Craig meets the fabulously hot-and-cold Maxine (Catherine Keener of Living in Oblivion), a fickle, blunt-talking vixen who immediately seizes and tramples his heart. Everyone falls for Maxine.
Best known as the director of the Beastie Boys' brilliant 1994 "Sabotage" video, Jonze briskly establishes BJM's Alice-in-Wonderland tone when Craig arrives on the unmarked seven-and-halfth floor for a job interview. There, the priapic 105-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) overeagerly shares his sexual fantasies. Everyone has to stoop beneath the office's impossibly low ceilings, which are cheerfully explained in Jonze's spot-on training film parody. Mary Kay Place turns up as a half-deaf receptionist who garbles everything she hears, leading love-struck Lester to bemoan his "lonely tower of indecipherable speech."
THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, as it were, Craig finds his escape from artistic, marital, and mental woes. ("Consciousness is a terrible curse," he proclaims.) More precisely, he escapes through a portal he discovers behind a filing cabinet; it leads him directly into the head of John Malkovich—for only 15 minutes at a time, after which he falls from the sky near the New Jersey Turnpike (just like Time Bandits). "It raises all sorts of philosophical questions," he raves of this borrowed identity. Maxine immediately sees the profit potential, while Lotte is transformed by her first experience as a man ("It's kind of sexy"); soon she is questioning her gender orientation. Meanwhile, with a long line of paying customers passing through his skull, Malkovich himself begins to question some of his own odd behaviors and motivations.
Written by Charlie Kaufman, BJM boasts one of the year's best comic premises, yet it inevitably falls into the infinite philosophical regress of any film dealing with metaphysics, fantasy, and identity. "Switching bodies isn't going to be the answer to your problems," Craig lectures Lotte, even as both plot to do just that (in growing competition with others). As the film dissolves into a rather strained and incoherent third act, it's best not to seriously ponder its supposed "metaphysical can of worms," but instead enjoy the abundant gags and fine performances. Malkovich is free of vanity or embarrassment, never appearing aloof from the loopy material. Charlie Sheen lends hilarious support to the increasingly schizoid actor, reassuring him, "Truth is for suckers, Johnny-boy."
You can forget about logic once Malkovich begins tailing Maxine and Craig to investigate his periodic bouts of possession. ("I have seen a world that no man should see," he memorably declares.) Jonze delivers two more brilliant little films-within-films, one spoofing TV's Biography-style celebrity profiles. (The other, a subtitled flashback, deserves your surprise.) First, Craig gets what he thinks he wants; then Lotte gets what she thinks she wants. In the end, only Maxine actually gets what she wants, thanks to her defiant, alluring selfishness. And thanks to Jonze's remarkable feature-length debut, we do pretty well, too.