Jump down a modern-day rabbit hole from an office with low ceilings and you end up in John Malkovich's mind! That's the premise for Being John Malkovich, and a what a incredible premise it is.
Trippy, surreal, fascinating, novel, exhilarating, original, subversive, and incredulous are words I'd use to describe this film, because it cannot be done so adequately in summary. It is a work of genius.
It is difficult to describe the incredibly complicated plot, as it were, because there is almost nothing conventional about Being John Malkovich. It begins when Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a down-on-his-luck street puppeteer in New York City is nagged by his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) to find a new job. He looks through the want ads and decides his skilled hands would make him an excellent filer. His new place of employment is located in the 7 1/2 floor of a multi-storied building which can be reached by prying open the elevator door with a crowbar, and where one has to crouch to move around (but the company does have a low overhead). It is just a small indication of the weirdness he has to deal with. His boss Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) is 105 years old and has been convinced by his hearing-impaired secretary Floris (Mary Kay Place) that he has a speech impediment. He soon runs into a co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), a manipulative bombshell, to whom he is dangerously attracted to.
During a normal filing operation, Craig encounters a door behind some cabinets which whisks him straight into John Malkovich's mind. He spends 15 minutes there before being ejected on the side of a New Jersey turnpike. Exhilarated by his discovery, he tells Maxine about it and, after a dismissive discussion on ethics, capitalises on the opportunity: pay $200 and you get to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes. Large crouched lines begin to form in the 7 1/2th floor.
The second aspect of the film is about filling warped voids. The relationship between Lotte and Craig gets more complicated as Lotte experiences being John Malkovich and questions her sexual identity. They both then try to acquire Maxine, but Maxine is interested only in Lotte, and then too only under certain circumstances. Finally, Craig uses his puppeteer skills to control Malkovich, all of which results a complex sado-masochistic relationship between Malkovich, Craig, Lotte, and Maxine.
Meanwhile, Craig, secure with Malkovich's body, his newly-acquired fame, and Maxine, begins to increase his popularity by bringing back puppeteering into the spotlight. This includes a humour segment where Sean Penn credits Malkovich for being a pioneer and visionary. This is the most "conventional" aspect in that it really explores the notion of fame, in ways similar to The Truman Show or Ed TV.
The fourth aspect of the film explains the reasons for the portal's existence and is a masterpiece of speculative fiction. The creation of the portal into someone else's mind is the reason for Dr. Lester's age, who together with a group of people, has found a way to live forever by moving from one person to another. There is a problem however: as long as Craig has control of Malkovich, Lester and his companions cannot take over.
Even though the main means of getting a message across is by satire and parody, it is unrivalled in the devices it employs (for example, you last exactly 15 minutes in John Malkovich's head... and then you exit violently by the side of New Jersey Turnpike---symbolism at its best). The one sole obvious and expected exception is when Lotte is held prisoner in her Chimpanzee's cage and the Chimpanzee, who has psychological problems, reminisces about a related childhood experience which jars it into action. That, to me, is more conventional parody.
There are a lot of compromises that could've been made that would've still made for a great film, but it seems as though every choice was meticulously (and naturally) crafted. For example the film could've worked with any body (agrave; la The Truman Show or ED TV) who was thrust into the spot light, though it is amusing (and perfect) that it is John Malkovich, a relatively obscure actor. Likewise, the presence of Charlie Sheen is deliciously clever.
With such unconventional ideas bursting out by the minute, it seems pointless to talk about the acting or the pacing or even the action/suspense, which are also superlative. A lot of the events in the film are unexpected and there are surprises every few minutes. Some of this is due to the novel nature of the film, but it also is reflective of a keen sense of understanding of the attention span of the audience. The actors generally play roles that are unconventional given their past record. Both John Cusack and Cameron Diaz manage to hide their charisma but yet manage to endear them to us. Malkovich, by far the most crucial element of the film, brilliantly showcases his acting ability by making all the transitions he encounters in his life (as himself, as Lotte, or as Craig) appear completely natural.
Director Spike Jonze, who is famous for his music video work, and for his redneck role in Three Kings, and writer Charlie Kaufman bring a breath of fresh air to the notion of what a movie should be. I've never seen anything like this film before, and while I'm positive it will spawn off many imitations, there's something to be said for being the first. Being John Malkovich is a great film because of its complex analysis of dysfunctional relationships, with a bit of trippy surrealism thrown in. Why don't they make inventive films like this one? Don't miss it.