Which brings me to music video and commercial director Spike Jonze's feature film debut, Being John Malkovich. This movie takes place in a world very different from the one we walk around in -- a comically surreal place where it's taken for granted that people build half-sized floors in New York skyscrapers, others dream of being famous puppeteers, and a small door that opens into a wet tunnel leads into the head of John Malkovich. Being John Malkovich is better than most every other film out there right now, because beneath the crazy world it's so happy to exploit, there is an emotional vein running through it that is so strong and so sad; if filmed as anything other than a comedy, the movie would be devastating.
Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is a talented puppeteer failing to make a living performing on the streets of New York. At home he spends time in his workshop, working on puppet versions of the people in his life. Alone, he performs with his own puppet his favorite routine, called "The Dance of Despair and Disillusionment." Obviously, he's living the romantically bleak life of the Tortured Artist. Meanwhile, he watches rival puppeteer Derek Mantini on a news report performing The Belle of Amherst with a 60-foot Emily Dickinson puppet. ("Gimmicky bastard," he says with more than a little jealousy.)
When his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, pulling all the glamour out of her role and replacing it with solid acting) suggests he get a job or something, he answers an ad looking for dexterous fingers and lands a job at a filing company on the 7 1/2th floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building. Seeing full-sized people on this half-sized floor is absurdly funny, particularly because nobody questions it ("Low overhead," is the standard line). The whole office space looks like a slightly larger version of one of his puppet sets. At the screening of the orientation video about the 7 1/2th floor, he meets Maxine (Catherine Keener), and is immediately attracted to her blunt honesty and brash sexuality. Back in his office, he drops a file behind a cabinet and discovers the door that goes into the tunnel that leads into John Malkovich's brain. And then... .
Being John Malkovich does an amazing job dealing with issues of desire and control, both within and without relationships. Quintessential caretaker Lotte experiences Malkovich, and becomes addicted to the feeling of confidence she has while being a man; escapist puppeteer Craig gets off on the experience of "being someone else for a little while, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel." Meanwhile, Maxine gets hooked on fucking Malkovich while somebody is inside of him; she loves it when two sets of eyes in one man's head look at her adoringly. A bizarre love triangle (pyramid?) spins around, with Malkovich at the center. Craig and Lotte are both in love with Maxine, who settles for whomever is inside Malkovich. Nobody in this movie likes themselves, except maybe Maxine -- an object of desire who needs two people at once to be satisfied.
The setup would be funny enough if Malkovich was just a semi-celebrity chosen at random, but the script is smarter than that. He's the perfect choice, an alluring mix of menacing sexuality and confidence with a name everybody recognizes, though people rarely know why (throughout the movie, people think they know him from "that jewel thief movie," no matter how often he denies having played any such role). Playing himself, not to mention himself possessed by a host of others, Malkovich has the most difficult role in the film, and he pulls it off flawlessly. It's a brave performance, particularly when you look at the two trips made into his subconscious (which I won't spoil for you here).
I love this movie. Not only does it explore aspects of storytelling on film that more established directors would never think to try (we get to see a monkey's memories, for God's sake!), not only does it thoughtfully explore philosophical issues like identity and desire (and eventually, immortality), and not only is it one of the most "real" movies in theaters today, it's also damn funny and always entertaining. You gotta see it to believe it.