In his first feature film, director Spike Jonze masters the notions of identity and celebrity he merely toyed with in his music videos. The man who got Weezer to hobnob with the "Happy Days" crowd and the Beastie Boys to stand in for Starsky and Hutch turns his attention to the loftier, more problematic idea(s) of "Being John Malkovich," a masterpiece that speaks volumes about the uneasy lot of the modern chameleon.
It's not difficult to believe that Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) would want to trade places with a successful performer. A talented but noncommercial street puppeteer, the born-too-late Schwartz alienates his sidewalk audiences with marionette shows that re-enact such hifalutin dramas as the temptations of Heloise. Instead of dumbing down the act for mass consumption, Schwartz secures a steady paycheck by taking a filing job with LesterCorp., a mysterious firm that's located between the seventh and eighth floors of a Manhattan office building. The locale takes on even more mystical proportions when Schwartz discovers a strange tunnel that's hidden behind a file cabinet. Venturing down the cramped portal, he somehow emerges in the mind and body of John Malkovich -- not a character played by Malkovich, but the real-life master thespian we all know.
Though a wondrous experience, it's also short-lived. After 15 minutes of sharing the actor's world from the inside out, Schwartz is plucked from his new human digs and dumped into a ditch just off the New Jersey Turnpike. (A few miles down the road, one presumes, the streets of Atlantic City are lined with the bodies of those who have just survived 15 minutes of Being Joe Pesci.)
This is an uproarious, extraordinarily intelligent film. Just as we congratulate ourselves for divining its successive metaphors (the portal's resemblance to a womb, the Warholian nature of the quarter-hour brush with fame), one of its core characters offhandedly mocks those fortune-cookie philosophies, and the search for meaning begins all over again.
When Schwartz shares his discovery with his confidantes, their equal desire to shanghai the Malkovich mystique allows Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (also a newcomer to features) to run wild with Freudian tomfoolery.
The repeated metamorphosis gives Schwartz a self-confidence that enables him to pursue Maxine (Catherine Keener), a cold-fish fellow employee. His wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz, wearing a frizzy Geena Davis 'do), instead gets off on the sexual empowerment she feels when inside a man's body. Schwartz and Maxine go into business as gatekeepers, selling pleasure cruises into the Malkovich psyche to lonely losers who are ready to be anyone else for a while.
It hardly matters to any of them that Malkovich's existence is by no means a glittering one. The actor is seen rehearsing plays, riding in taxicabs and ordering towels over the telephone -- the activities that comprise the bulk of a respected but second-tier star's day. (In a running gag, Schwartz and crew try to name a film in which Malkovich actually appeared, settling for the erroneous "the one where he played a jewel thief." )
Neither does the trip appear physically pleasant. Jonze shoots the point-of-view footage through a fish-eye lens and dubs in Malkovich's muffled words. Assuming another's identity looks as awkward as trying on a new pair of eyeglasses or listening to one's own voice through strapped-on headphones.
These body-snatching rubberneckers seek comfort of a different kind. It's the solace of stepping into the already established (if hazily understood) mantle of a public personality, instead of making one up from scratch every morning in order to battle for position in a world of similarly ill-defined strangers.
Having spent his early career propping up the images of pop luminaries, Jonze is in a strong position to alternately ridicule and embrace that irrational but all-too-human yearning for second-hand authority. By throwing down the gauntlet for metaphysical satire, he's ironically inspired an entire generation of lesser filmmakers to wish they were him.