Catherine Keener and John Cusack in 1999's "Being John Malkovich." (Melissa Moseley, ©1999…)
One of the greatest first films in all of American cinema, "Being John Malkovich" (1999) introduced audiences to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, two of the most distinctive voices in contemporary movies. A mad scramble of surrealist tropes and philosophical ideas, it marked the acme of Hollywood's passing interest in existentialist postmodernism, which manifested itself through the '90s in such meta-movies as"Groundhog Day,""The Truman Show" and"The Matrix."
Thirteen years on, "Being John Malkovich" — which the Criterion Collection is releasing on DVD andBlu-raythis week — has lost none of its lunatic charm. While first-time viewers are likely to be dazzled by the film's ambition and inventiveness, repeat encounters only underscore its self-assured, straight-faced poise.
Kaufman's first screenplay, a brain-twisting amalgam of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka, "Alice in Wonderland" and Andy Warhol, establishes his signature tone: at once cerebral and playful, a kind of intellectual slapstick. It also announces his central theme: "Consciousness is a curse," goes one of the first lines, more or less summing up the obsessions of"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Synecdoche, New York."
Piling one improbability onto another, the scenario could have been conjured through the surrealist process of automatic writing. Craig, a frustrated puppeteer played by John Cusack, lives with his animal-loving wife, Lotte (an unrecognizably dowdy Cameron Diaz), in a messy New York City apartment-cum-menagerie. Responding to a want ad calling for "fast hands," he finds a job as a file clerk on the claustrophobic 71/2 th floor ("low overhead") of a midtown office building and falls hard for his sarcastic, emasculating co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener).
Poking around behind a filing cabinet one day, Craig happens upon an opening that sends him whooshing through time and space and into the head of John Malkovich (playing himself); the visitor inhabits the actor's point of view for 15 minutes (reading the paper over breakfast, taking a shower and drying off) before being ejected onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Maxine sees the discovery as a cash cow and starts charging admission (her sales pitch: "Ever want to be someone else?"). For Lotte, who also becomes smitten with Maxine, the experience of being Malkovich is so transportive it's the first step to sexual reassignment surgery.
Before "Malkovich," Jonze was known for some of the period's most inventive music videos (for the Beastie Boys, Bjork and Fatboy Slim), and the film confirmed that his talent for sustaining a high concept could be extended to feature length. Jonze has a gift both for loosening up his performers and for getting them in sync with his fine-tuned absurdities. Not least among the pleasures of "Malkovich" is watching such skilled comic actors as Keener and Diaz play against type — though an amazingly game Malkovich outdoes them all, offering several versions of "Malkovich," a subtle caricature of his own persona and as a hapless vessel occupied by invading forces.
The premise is, of course, ripe for complication: What happens when more than one person tumbles down the rabbit hole, or when Malkovich enters his own portal? As it progresses, though, the film doesn't just get nuttier but also thematically denser.
A story of alienated souls seeking 15 minutes of an ultimate fan fantasy, if not exactly fame, "Being John Malkovich" is most obviously a riff on modern celebrity culture. But the first-person view from inside Malkovich also puts a supernatural spin on virtual-reality immersions and broaches the great mystery of human subjectivity. And amid the erotic complications that link Craig, Maxine, Lotte and Malkovich is a funny, strange, one might even say progressive view of sex, gender and physicality, involving lovers who make assignations that involve an unwitting host body ("See you in Malkovich in one hour").
While "Being John Malkovich" is unmistakably Kaufman's brainchild, it's unlikely that another director could have given it the right deadpan treatment. Jonze articulates Kaufman's big ideas with the necessary light touch, but he's also just the kind of miniaturist who can bring the screenwriter's wackier incidental ideas to vivid life: a nightmare vision of a world full of Malkoviches; a flashback from the point of view of a chimp; the lovingly spot-on films-within-the-film (a corporate video explaining the apocryphal origins of the 71/2 th floor, an A&E-style TV biography on Malkovich's career).
The movie's underlying anguish creeps up on you. By the time it ends, with Malkovich subject to a new form of possession and Craig trapped in a new vessel, the existentialist comedy has turned pitch-black, the longing to be someone else having merged with a yearning for immortality.