Driving along the New Jersey Turnpike and headed to the Big Apple, it's not unimaginable to think that you've just passed the crossroads into another dimension. In this other world, there's no confinement to a single human form. Monkeys expose their childhood traumas, your face appears on every lounge singer you encounter, and the lasagna tastes delicious. That's what it's like in Being John Malkovich, an ingeniously twisted tour-de-force for first-time feature film director and longtime music video director, Spike Jonze.
As if stuck with Dorothy in Kansas for an interminable amount of time before she puts on her red sequined beauties, the beginning of this film drags on like a doomed romance on an episode of "Ally McBeal." The love story subplot is a crudely devised mechanism, dragging its heels forward in the development of an otherwise extraordinary plot.
Lottie (Cameron Diaz) is a simpering wife and pet store clerk whose work is never done. Only the sadistic allure of seeing Diaz with frizzy, unmanageable hair and bad skin makes her character intriguing. Her husband Craig (played by a barely recognizable John Cusack) is an unsuccessful puppeteer and wanna-be philanderer who's forced to get a real job. What little sympathy there is for this guy is lost when he performs an adult-themed Punch & Judy act for a young girl on a New York City sidewalk. Craig eventually takes a job as a back-bending file clerk and quickly becomes enamored with his intolerably bitchy and condescending coworker, Maxine (Catherine Keener). The primary problem here is that the characters in this bizarre love triangle are totally unlikable.
Things finally kick into gear, though, when Craig discovers a tiny hidden door and womblike passageway to actor John Malkovich's brain hidden (inexplicably) behind a dusty filing cabinet in his office. At this point, tossing aside Craig and Lottie's tedious lives to become absorbed in the sloppy innards of the relentlessly poised John Malkovich is a great idea. Craig is aware of both the metaphysical ramifications of his discovery, as well as the porthole's income-earning potential. In the end, he opts to pursue the less noble of the two attributes, selling tickets to J. M.'s brain like at a twisted circus sideshow.
But this isn't a film that needs to be about nice people. It's a film about malignant spirits that enter the minds of the unfortunate, subduing their bodies' original identities and guiding them about like a puppet on a string. The movie's central idea is that certain people are vessels that may be entered through a special portal. The concept is not different from the Yoruban/Santerian/Vodoun notion of spiritual possession, often described by practitioners as "mounting one's head." This concept invokes a plethora of interesting philosophical ideas. Is there a human soul? What are the forces driving some of our behavior? Traditional dualistic perceptions of interior and exterior are challenged, our precious human identities seem shifting and ephemeral, and ideas of reincarnation and immortality seem more plausible.
Being John Malkovich miraculously stirs up all these thoughts without leading the viewer by the nose. Unlike most film narratives, there is no dogma to espouse or readily consumable conclusions telling us how to feel or what to think. At times, logistical problems with the nuts and bolts of the film's "vessel" premise may hinder the suspension of disbelief. But these pragmatic concerns are rapidly swept under the carpet as the floor is pulled from beneath our feet.
John Cusack has aptly compared this film to an Escher painting with its endless winding staircases leading to unknown destinations. It is a transcendental vacuum, neither highbrow nor preachy nor smattered with the rich visual style we've come to expect from watching Jonze's music videos.
At one point, there's even an intriguing allusion to a Nirvana video image and perhaps a suggestion that Kurt will rise again like the King. There's just so much to ruminate on, Being John Malkovich will have the muffled voices of your subconscious pondering and steering your reality for weeks to come.
Just stay off the New Jersey Turnpike.