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Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes--"Art changes you"--and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas-station attendant known as "Gas," who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him--though after playing them, he's still a grease monkey. (His favorite Allegra creation is "ArtGod: Very spiritual. God the artist, God the mechanic. They don't write them like that anymore.") And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials like amphibian eggs have turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the game-makers. The script refers to the plot to eliminate Allegra as a fatwa (a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists, as well as at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. Yet he doesn't let himself or Allegra off the hook. Even in an amusement like eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire--and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind game with an erotic tingle.

eXistenZ.
Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe.

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