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Pull the Strings!

A weird concept makes Being John Malkovich a one-of-a-kind experience.

The first rule of Being John Malkovichis, you do not look at the poster for Being John Malkovich! Plot-spoiling critics are harmless compared to what these filmmakers have opted to disclose in their own promotional art. (This package is second only to Kevin Smith's Dogma for foolishly trotting out its own best surprise ahead of release.)

That said, dosee the movie, because Being John Malkovich is an audacious chunk of sheer cinematic subversion, a fractured fairy tale boasting twice as much daft cleverness as most pabulum on the menu these days. (It's no small irony that Propaganda Films, co-helmed by David Fincher, shares production credit with Single Cell Pictures.) Lifting liberally from Freud and Fellini, Carroll and Craven, Malkovich is a whimsical, phantasmagorical dive down the psychosexual rabbit hole. Smart people will relish its temerity, average people will smile awkwardly and comment that it's "kinda different," and dimly lit people may mistake it for the Elmo movie and drool quietly in the back rows. So it's a movie for everyone.

"You know, I was thinking," chirps Lotte Schwartz (Cameron Diaz, bohoed beyond recognition) to Craig (John Cusack, beardie weirdie), her ground-down husband of ten years, "maybe you'd feel better if you got a job or something." We've already met Craig via his breathtaking work with marionettes (the lush opening titles, set to Bartok's "Allegro"), and we're swiftly introduced to his real world, a second-rate apartment the couple shares with a clutch of convalescent animals Lotte brings home from her job at a pet store.

"Lotte, we've been over this," he quips defensively. "Nobody's looking for a puppeteer in today's wintry economic climate." The stage is set: starving artist versus the cruelties of an artless world, right? Well, sort of. Once it's established that Craig is truly suffering (overshadowed by a gimmicky competitor, assaulted for leeching lewdness into Verdi -- both segments wickedly funny), his nimble fingers actually land him work...as a file clerk. LesterCorp is, like most office environments, an incubator for insanity, here saliently illustrated by secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place, perky and profoundly whacked) and boss Dr. Lester (Orson Bean, deadpan vulgar genius). In this freakish setting, located on floor seven and a half of an office building and featuring ceilings only slightly over five feet high, Craig meets (and, soon enough, desperately lusts after) Maxine (Catherine Keener, brass tacks), who deems him pathetic. Something is ready to snap.

That snap comes in the form of a tiny hidden doorway Craig discovers behind a filing cabinet, a doorway that leads to a narrow, murky tunnel, which in turn leads directly into the psyche of...you guessed it. (Nice work. Join the smart people if you're not already among them.) Operating on the notion that a quarter-hour stay inside the senses of John Malkovich is a wildly covetable, marketable experience (even to Malkovich himself, providing the movie's most uproariously brilliant scene), the action swiftly shifts into high gear, becoming a wry study of power and persona.

Most of it flies, too, which is a credit to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, making their respective feature debuts as screenwriter and director. Kaufman has concocted a successful stream-of-consciousness narrative that will have writing instructors cowering behind their weary paradigms. His bizarre, dreamlike fluidity would be cake aplenty, but he also piles on rich dialogue like an avalanche of frosting. (Bean swipes some of the best dollops, eloquently dropping lines such as, "I've been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech.") This wit would be for naught in incapable hands, but director Jonze gets the joke so well -- throughout -- that he continually downplays it. For an artist who has been building his career on spectacle (Björk and Pharcyde videos, award-winning commercials), his choices here are remarkably evenhanded, an everyday camouflage concealing wondrous absurdities. The director has summoned his many familiars, including production designer K.K. Barrett and cinematographer Lance Acord (who makes his sophomore stab here after debuting with Buffalo 66) to achieve his suggestive style.

Performances are shrewd and knowing throughout. Malkovich himself breezes through this freakishness as if it's just another day's work, which is perfect. It would be preposterous to suggest that a project like this could avoid being an ego trip for its eponymous star, but the soft-spoken thespian strides through both lauding and lampooning with equal dignity and dry humor. Cusack is in fine form as always, this time mixing the woe, ascension and decline of a creator into his patented likable-guy routine. (As a bookend to Better Off Dead, in which he played a hapless cartoonist years ago, the meatier role of Craig is a fine career barometer.) Bean and Place, bless them, punch for belly laughs like prizefighters. (Their formidable resumés and casual compliance lend them the air of an uncle and aunt who were game for a weird lark.) Most vitally, Keener's calculating self-server and Diaz's nice little nobody form a chemistry that moves stealthily from fascinating to frightening, as they both discover the fruits -- and poisons -- of ambition.

Because this is a dark comedy (the last act and the wrap-up are on the dank side, with a surprising swatch of bathos woven into the fabric), somebody has to suffer. In this sense, the movie is in sync with its contemporaries; its verdict (and the escalating drama leading up to it) feels forced, reactionary and a bit unjust. The movie sweeps this aside, however, with its fascinating theme of puppetry and everyone yanking someone else's strings. Taken allegorically or literally (we get both perspectives), this mad craving for control propels the narrative through an impressive and inventive obstacle course.

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