Putting aside the fact that Charlie Kaufman's insistently surreal script for Being John Malkovich was staked on the actor's willingness to appear in a supporting role, it's still a miracle that a film conceived with such brazen disregard for the marketplace ever got made. In description, Kaufman's lunatic flourishes seem to have emerged from a haze of pot smoke: an ulcerous chimp with feelings of inadequacy, a building designed to accommodate miniature ladies, a production of The Belle Of Amherst featuring a 60-foot Emily Dickinson puppet. But there's sturdy intelligence and depth behind the material—aided immeasurably by Spike Jonze's ultra-realistic direction—that keeps it grounded in basic human desires. In a cast of deglamorized Hollywood stars, a pallid, greasy-haired John Cusack stars as an unemployed puppeteer who takes a filing job on the 7 1/2th floor (where "overhead is low") of a downtown office building. One day, he stumbles upon a hidden portal into John Malkovich's head that allows participants to experience his world for 15 minutes before being deposited in a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike. Cusack's wife, a frumpy Cameron Diaz, becomes obsessed with his startling discovery, while Catherine Keener plays an icy co-worker ready to exploit its business potential. An original vision with strong echoes of Alice In Wonderland, Brazil, and Luis Buñuel, Being John Malkovich is at once a metaphysical screwball farce, a hilarious riff on celebrity mystique, and a touching expression of people's wish to escape their own skin. Jonze's inventive music videos (which include the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet," and Fatboy Slim's "Praise You") are built on strong concepts; for his feature debut, he's found one ingenious enough to sustain at full length. Being John Malkovich blazes along with such heightened insanity that it seems close to collapsing at any moment, undone by forced wackiness or dramatic dead ends. But Kaufman's elastic bag of tricks never empties.
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