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Weirdly Wonderful

 

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Being John Malkovich qualifies as the strangest, most inventive, most astonishing movie I've ever seen. My date sat through it with his mouth hanging open. All around me I heard nervous laughter from other moviegoers. We saw the movie 10 days ago, and I'm still thinking about it. It was just so weird. . . . 

What I love about Being John Malkovich is, well, everything. In this surrealistic tale, deadpan comedy triumphs over special effects, which director Spike Jonze kept to a minimum. The plot involves a misunderstood artist -- a puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) -- whose animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) urges him to get a "real" job.  

Craig finds himself filing for a quirky little company squeezed between floors of a New York skyscraper. There, hunched down beneath the four-foot-high ceilings, Craig meets Maxine (Catherine Keener), a sophisticated troublemaker, who doesn't take Craig seriously until he stumbles into the muddy portal behind the filing cabinet. And where does this portal lead? Why, into actor John Malkovich's brain, of course! 

Oh, sure, Craig briefly considers the ethics of occupying another man's head without his knowledge or consent. But Maxine sees dollar signs, and soon Craig shares her vision. They place an ad, and eventually people line up to spend 15 minutes as John Malkovich before being dumped in the mud and weeds alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. Eventually, Malkovich learns of this enterprise and enters his own brain in one of the movie's most hilarious sequences. From that point on, the story becomes increasingly bizarre, almost indescribably so.  

John Malkovich should receive some kind of Oscar for going along with this in the first place -- maybe a good sportsmanship award if not an actual acting award. He delivers an excellent portrayal of his slightly fictionalized self, but without him I suppose director Jonze would've knocked on the door of someone like James Woods, who probably wouldn't have been half as much fun.  

John Cusack plays Craig as quirky, confused and determined, and gives his most off-beat portrayal since Grosse Point Blank. Cameron Diaz comes across as endearing and unrecognizably frumpy. If the former model Diaz felt the need to prove she's not just a pretty face, she accomplished that with this role. And Catherine Keener proves deliciously self-centered and skanky as Maxine. 

In the midst of the chaos, Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman paid close attention to the details. Maxine makes a date with Malkovich at four a.m., something that could happen only in New York. Lotte's rescued chimpanzee experiences a flashback to a traumatic incident in his chimp-childhood, and it becomes a pivotal event.  

And the puppets -- oh, the puppets! Who knew the torment inherent in a puppeteer's soul? Poets have nothing on these brave artistes. Or so Jonze and Kaufman would have you believe in the world they created here. It's well worth paying the admission to Being John Malkovich and seeing life through their eyes for a while. 

Elizabeth Sheley

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