Being John Malkovich is undoubtedly one of modern cinemas most mind-bending movies and a startling debut for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Direector Spike Jonz, who was handed the script by father-in-law Francis Ford Coppolla, manages to craft an intelligent and insane slice of cinema with a deliciously dark streak.
John Cusack takes the lead as failed pupeteer Craig Schwarz, a pony-tailed loner who's married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), a frazzle-haired frump who works in a pet shop. Their poor existence forces Craig to get a job on the 7 1/2 floor of the Mertin Flemmer building, a preposterous place with a low ceiling that forces its employees to stoop. It's here Craig becomes infatuated with office bitch Maxine (Catherine Keener), before discovering a portal into the mind of noted "creepy" actor John Malkovich, played with amazing honesty by Malkovich himself.
The premise is extremely high-concept, but comes loaded with dangers: will audiences accept the idea? Do they even know who Malkovich is? Where can the idea go? Thankfully, Kaufman fills his script with answers to every single question... and then some.
The concept is utter madness, but the universe Kaufman creates is so left-field, you accept it the same way you accept Alice venturing down a rabbit hole. As for Malkovich's fame; he may not be a household name, but everyone knows the face, while audiences attracted to thier material will likely be aware of Malkovich's work. The level of celebrity isn't really the issue and Malkovich's persona is perfectly suited to the material. The intense yet introverted actor should be commended for allowing such a bizarre insight into his pesonality.
As for the idea's sustainability, that's easily the film's greatest strength. Kaufman squeezes every element of drama and conflict out of the idea, from Lotte's sexual awakening as a "man" when inside Malkovich, Maxine's "lesbian" relationship with Malkovich-Lotte, the use of the portal for financial gain (a literal 15 minutes of fame for paying customers) and Craig's gradual skill in pulling Malkovich's strings like a marionette. On top of all the quirky relationships that arise, Kaufman also throws in a secret society aware of Malkovich as a "vessel" and shows us what happens when a man enters his own mind...
There's a huge amount to enjoy and puzzle over. The first part of the film is laced with oddball humour (the low ceiling, a deaf receptionist, eccentric boss), before the laughs are replaced by a bewitching oddness, then takes some sinister twists into darker territory. Kaufman pushes the film into some extraordinary areas, ripe for debate amongst friends, with the final moment being one of the most painful and haunting sequences you'll ever see on film.
The cast are all fantastic and beyond criticism; Cusack is believable as an anxious nerd, Cameron Diaz is great and almost unrecognisable as Lotte, Catherine Keener is amazing as manipulating Maxine, Orson Bean brings a kooky edge as Mr Lester, while John Malkovich is a revelation.
Spike Jonz's camerawork is excellent and the production design a brilliant use of dark, mysterious and impersonal shades. Jonz never goes overboard, allowing the performances and story to take precendence, although a late chase sequence through Malkovich's subconscious is stunning (and provides inspiration for a similar moment in Monster's, Inc. a few years later).
All hail King Kaufman.