"Being John Malkovich" is a metaphysical comic love story about the desire to be someone else and the urge to control another person's thoughts and actions. This maze-like journey, by first-time feature-helmer Spike Jonze and scribe Charlie Kaufman, touches on questions of love, identity, sex, gender and penetration with a playful perverseness few other semi-mainstream productions would ever dare to dabble in.

Hot musicvideo and commercials creator Spike Jonze makes a bracingly original entry into the feature-film arena with “Being John Malkovich,” which also marks a no-less-auspicious bow for writer Charlie Kaufman, whose first produced screenplay this is. A metaphysical comic love story about the desire to be someone else and the urge to control another person’s thoughts and actions, this maze-like journey touches on questions of love, identity, sex, gender and penetration with a playful perverseness few other semi-mainstream productions would ever dare to dabble in. Devilishly inventive and so far out there it’s almost off the scale, the film should see smart urban audiences turning out in force but may be too dark and eccentric to conquer a broader marketplace. U.S. opening is set for Oct. 29.

While its title might sound bizarre anywhere other than on a docu portrait of the actor, the work itself goes beyond odd, taking its unconventional outlandishness to hilarious, dizzying heights. Yet what makes it so fresh is the decision to treat even the story’s most surreal inventions in real, rather than fantastical terms, placing Kaufman’s peculiar universe in everyday New York City, with characters who register each surprise development as merely another unusual but not incredible crease in the fabric of their lives.

At the center of this world is talented but esoteric street puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), whose darkly sexual marionette dramas prove unpalatable to most NYC pedestrians. Equally unfulfilling is his marriage to frumpy pet-store staffer Lotte (a startlingly deglamorized Cameron Diaz), whose priorities revolve primarily around kitty litter deliveries and the neuroses of her traumatized chimp, one of a menagerie of animals inhabiting their dingy apartment.

Driven by lack of income to find a job, Craig answers an ad for a nimble-fingered filing clerk in offices located on a Manhattan building’s low-ceilinged 7-1/2th floor, which, legend has it, was constructed to ease the stigma suffered by the original owner’s height-challenged inamorata. At orientation, he meets neighboring office employee Maxine (Catherine Keener) and is immediately smitten, but she is far too cool a customer for the love-struck loser.

The two colleagues form a business partnership when Craig stumbles on a weird discovery. Behind a cabinet in his office is a sealed door that opens onto a cramped, sticky tunnel. Exploring this, he is sucked into the head of John Malkovich, from where he views the world through the actor’s eyes for precisely 15 minutes before being spat out into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike. Before long, Craig and Maxine are charging thrill-starved New Yorkers $200 a pop for entry into this portal to Malkovich’s brain. But complications arise when Lotte takes the trip and is instantly hooked on “the Malkovich ride.”

Inside the actor’s skin, Lotte finds a real sense of herself for the first time and begins to consider sex reassignment. Her feelings are further confused when Maxine sets up a date with Malkovich and Lotte is party to her seduction, while Maxine also responds with heightened pleasure to the awareness of a woman’s eyes desiring her through Malkovich’s. As the two women’s unorthodox sexual relationship takes wing, Craig takes matters into his own hands, entering Malkovich’s brain and using his puppeteering skills to take up permanent residence. From within, he completely redirects the now helpless actor’s career and, for a time, finds bliss with Maxine.

The beauty of Kaufman’s endlessly resourceful script is not just the originality of its humor but that the ideas never let up. And despite the sheer absurdity of much of it, the story retains its own unique logic. This is due in great part to Jonze’s shrewd decision to focus on the performances and the exhilaratingly paced material, letting the actors and script shine rather than investing heavily in visuals.

The director has declined to go the expected route for a musicvid savant of concocting elaborate, slick visuals or heightened atmosphere, instead opting for functional simplicity that, if anything, is often a little drab and underlit. But d.p. Lance Acord — who, like most of the principal technical team, comes from musicvideos and has collaborated frequently with Jonze in the past — perfectly mirrors the material’s tone with his jumpy, manic camerawork, as does Eric Zumbrunnen’s tight editing.

Working with actors in fully developed roles for the first time, Jonze draws rich, enjoyable performances from the entire cast. Each character goes through his share of bumps and changes, and the four leads fully embrace the material’s wild spirit.

While it takes time to recover from the shock of seeing Diaz so dismally plain, with shapeless outfits and a bad perm, the actress again demonstrates her verve and razor-sharp comic skills as she falls for Maxine, is thwarted by her husband and responds with fierce determination to secure happiness at any price. In the showier role of smart-mouthed, cynical Maxine, Keener she brings plenty of sexy attitude, poise and bite. And the actress ultimately uncovers some softer angles when true love finally finds Maxine.

Craig is the kind of edgy, idiosyncratic role Cusack — also dressed-down and with scruffy beard and hair — does best. His nervous energy propels the puppeteer from being an almost Kafkaesque figure in dementia-land to a manipulator and amoral exploiter of the situation to a pitiable, quietly tragic soul in the audaciously twisted, melancholy final act, which is both disturbing and poignant.

Malkovich reveals himself to be a terrific sport, taking shots at his own career (almost no one can remember a movie he was in except “that one about the jewel thief”), his screen persona, even his looks and body and, more fancifully, his murky past when Lotte chases Maxine through the various levels of his subconscious.

It’s hard to imagine many established actors game enough to allow themselves to be presented in this often questionable way, and equally hard to imagine another name that would fit the conceit so snugly. Malkovich’s aloof, slightly stoned and at times inhuman demeanor makes him elastic enough to be inhabited and gradually taken over. His puppet dance of despair, with Craig pulling the strings from inside, is a classic.

Mary Kay Place has some extremely funny scenes as the office receptionist, who chronically mishears everything said to her, as does Orson Bean, as the company’s enigmatic, 105-year-old, sex-obsessed president. Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, among others, pop up in brief, amusing cameos, while Charlie Sheen gets some major laughs, especially when advising the incensed Malkovich not to let go of “the hot, lesbian witch thing.”

Being John Malkovich

British - U.S.

Production

A USA Films (in U.S.)/Universal Pictures Intl. release of a Gramercy Pictures presentation of a Propaganda Films/Single Cell Pictures production. Produced by Michael Stipe, Sandy Stern, Steve Golin, Vincent Landay. Executive producers, Charlie Kaufman, Michael Kuhn. Directed by Spike Jonze. Screenplay, Charlie Kaufman.

Crew

Camera (color), Lance Acord; editor, Eric Zumbrunnen; music, Carter Burwell; production designer, K.K. Barrett; art director, Peter Andrus; costume designer, Casey Storm; sound (Dolby Digital), Forrest Brakeman; assistant director, Thomas Patrick Smith; casting, Kim Davis-Wagner, Justine Baddeley. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Dreams and Visions), Sept. 2, 1999. (Also in Deauville Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Craig Schwartz - John Cusack Lotte Schwartz - Cameron Diaz Maxine - Catherine Keener Dr. Lester - Orson Bean Floris - Mary Kay Place John Horatio Malkovich - John Malkovich Charlie - Charlie Sheen

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