Directed by Spike Jonze

The first rule of Being John Malkovich is, you do not look at the poster for Being John Malkovich! Sorry to crib from that inferior tale of incredible shrinking men (throw a rock at any multiplex marquee this season -- please! -- and you'll hit several), but, really, avoid that poster, despite its curious clinical design, until after you've seen the movie. Plot-spoiling critics are harmless compared with what these filmmakers have opted to disclose in their own promotional art. (This package is second only to Kevin Smith's Dogma for foolishly trotting out its own best surprise ahead of release.)

That said, do see the movie, because Being John Malkovich is an audacious chunk of sheer cinematic subversion, a fractured fairytale boasting twice as much daft cleverness as most pabulum on the menu these days. (It's no small irony that Propaganda Films, co-helmed by David Fincher, shares production credit with Single Cell Pictures.) Lifting liberally from Freud and Fellini, Carroll and Craven, Malkovich is a whimsical, phantasmagorical dive down the psychosexual rabbit hole. Smart people will relish its temerariousness, average people will smile awkwardly and comment that it's "kinda different," and dimly lit people may mistake it for the Elmo movie and drool quietly in the back rows. So it's a movie for everyone.

"You know, I was thinking," chirps Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz, bohoed beyond recognition) to Craig (John Cusack, beardie-weirdie), her ground-down husband of 10 years, "maybe you'd feel better if you got a job or something." We've already met Craig through his breathtaking work with marionettes (the lush opening titles, set to Bartok's "Allegro"), and we're swiftly introduced to his real world, a second-rate apartment the couple share with a clutch of convalescent animals Lotte brings home from her job at a pet store.

"Lotte, we've been over this," he defensively quips. "Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate." The stage is set: starving artist vs. the cruelties of an artless world, right? Well, sort of. Once it's established that Craig is truly suffering (overshadowed by a gimmicky competitor, assaulted for leaching lewdness into Verdi -- both segments wickedly funny), his nimble fingers actually land him work ... as a file clerk. LesterCorp is, like most office environments, an incubator for insanity, here saliently illustrated by secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place, perky and profoundly whacked) and boss Dr. Lester (Orson Bean, deadpan vulgar genius). In this freakish setting, located on an office building's seventh-and-a-half floor and featuring ceilings only slightly more than 5 feet high, Craig meets (and, soon enough, desperately lusts after) Maxine (Catherine Keener, brass tacks), who deems him pathetic. Something is ready to snap.

That snap comes in the form of a tiny hidden doorway Craig discovers behind a filing cabinet, a doorway that leads to a narrow, murky tunnel that in turn leads directly into the psyche of ... you guessed it. (Nice work. Join the smart people, if you're not already among them.) Operating on the notion that a quarter-hour stay inside the senses of John Malkovich is a wildly covetable, marketable experience (even to Malkovich himself, providing the movie's most uproariously brilliant scene), the action swiftly shifts into high gear, becoming a wry study of power and persona.

Most of it flies, too, which is a credit to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, making their respective feature debuts as screenwriter and director. Kaufman has concocted a successful stream-of-consciousness narrative that will have writing instructors cowering behind their weary paradigms. His bizarre, dreamlike fluidity would be cake aplenty, but he also piles on rich dialogue like an avalanche of frosting. (Bean swipes some of the best dollops, eloquently dropping lines such as "I've been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech.") This wit would be for naught in incapable hands, but director Jonze gets the joke so well -- throughout -- that he continually downplays it. For an artist who has been building his career on spectacle (Björk and Pharcyde videos, award-winning commercials), his choices here are remarkably evenhanded, an everyday camouflage concealing wondrous absurdities. The director has summoned his many familiars, including production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord (who makes his sophomore stab here after debuting with Buffalo 66) to achieve his suggestive style.

Performances are shrewd and knowing throughout. Malkovich himself breezes through this freakishness as if it's just another day's work, which is perfect. It would be preposterous to suggest that a project like this could avoid being an ego trip for its eponymous star, but the soft-spoken thespian strides through both lauding and lampooning with equal dignity and dry humor. Cusack is in fine form as always, this time mixing the woe, ascension and decline of a creator into his patented likeable-guy routine. (As a bookend to Better Off Dead, in which he played a hapless cartoonist years ago, the meatier role of Craig is a fine career barometer.) Bean and Place, bless them, punch for belly laughs like prizefighters. (Their formidable résumés and casual compliance lend them the air of an uncle and aunt who were game for a weird lark.) Most vitally, Keener's calculating self-server and Diaz's nice little nobody form a chemistry that moves stealthily from fascinating to frightening, as they both discover the fruits -- and poisons -- of ambition.

Because this is a dark comedy (the last act and the wrap-up are on the dank side, with a surprising swatch of bathos woven into the fabric), somebody has to suffer. In this sense, the movie is in sync with its contemporaries; its verdict (and the escalating drama leading up to it) feels forced, reactionary and a bit unjust. The movie sweeps this aside, however, with its fascinating theme of puppetry, with everyone yanking someone else's strings. Taken allegorically or literally (we get both perspectives), this mad craving for control propels the narrative through an impressive and inventive obstacle course.

A secondary premise, blatantly spelled out in the poster art, is silly science-fiction malarkey, but it's still a fair sight more imaginative than most material in studio films, which is why, despite its glitches, Being John Malkovich is so refreshing. Imagine if this brand of whimsy were to catch on in Hollywood -- there could be sequels! Say, perhaps, Being Geena Davis or Being Jackie Chan or (why not?) Being Rupert Murdoch. Not only could John Cusack abandon grooming for good and ride the series until he croaks, it's simply a frontier of limitless potential.

Well, we can always dream.

Opens Nov. 12 at the Tivoli.

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