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FILM REVIEW

Being John Malkovich

Wow

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
ARTS EDITOR

Directed by Spike Jonze

Written by Charlie Kaufman

With John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich

I don’t want to spoil your pleasure of staring, wide-eyed, at the wildly inventive world that will unfold in front of you when you see Being John Malkovich -- I’ll say just this: go and see it now.

There has not lately been a film so different, so whacked-out, so original, so totally unlike anything else out there. This is like Monty Python at their most deadpan hilarious, albeit transposing the Britishness of The Ministry of the Silly Walks with the American late 20th century culture, replete with satirical jabs at such things like brainless celebrity idolatry and everyday absurd of faceless corporate workspace.

Being John Malkovich is like a series of Russian dolls, nested one inside another, and comedy is the outside one, shockingly funny simply by the virtue of its inventiveness, performing a death-defying act on the boundary between completely logical and far-out absurd. This dichotomy is both in the story, an insane number of throwaway gags, and in the acting. Three out of four main performers (John Cusack, almost unrecognizable as a down-on-his-luck puppeteer; Cameron Diaz, cast against type and totally unrecognizable as his dowdy wife; and the self-effacing presence of the eponymous thespian) are perfect.

Slightly problematic is the fourth lead, a diamond-hard Catherine Keener; she’s funny, yes, but really not as appealing as to be the object of desire to just about every other character. Whenever she’s on screen, the film is funny and appealing -- but merely intellectually, without the deeper emotional resonance that is present in the rest of it.

Underneath the fun layer, though, is a film of head-spinning complexity -- I’m convinced that Being John Malkovich is about as many things as the many viewers it has. This film is anything but random, from its Moebius strip of a story to the carefully composed shots -- and that from first-time writer Charlie Kaufman and first-time director Spike Jonze, who include among their allusions such subjects as Abelard and Heloise.

And, finally, there’s the third layer. It comes seemingly from nowhere, and it is staggeringly affecting. By the time the movie cuts to its closing shot of a little girl playing by the pool, the viewers know exactly what will happen with her, and the laughter instantly gives way to a presentiment of tragedy.

This is the best film of the year; so far, I hasten to add, since there’s at least a half dozen potentially terrific films waiting to be released during the next couple of months. Being John Malkovich, though, dramatically raises the bar.