Fame is pain and fame is confusion.
That's one of the underlying messages of "Being John Malkovich," an insane premise for a movie developed with its own dear, cracked illogic. It might be brilliant or a masterpiece; the likes of Esquire magazine have already anointed Spike Jonze's masterful direction of Charlie Kaufman's inspired screenplay with those dangerous encomiums.
"Being John Malkovich" is a terrific shaggy-celeb fable, developing and elaborating on the rules of its world with uncommon diligence. In contemporary Manhattan, Malkovich plays "himself," a deracinated version of a celebrity of whom everyone on the street can (and will) recite the same handful of sloppy factoids. John Cusack is Craig, a greasy-haired, rotten-hearted puppeteer who wants to crush a world that doesn't appreciate his genius. Cameron Diaz, under a mud-and-stick colored wig, plays Lottie, Craig's animal-clutching, love-starved wife. And, as the lust object of most of the movie's men, the always wonderful Catherine Keener makes hay with her particular beauty (and just a dollop of extra cerise lipstick). One day, Craig makes a discovery behind the filing cabinets of the odd office where he works -- a portal that allows entry into the mind of John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes, you're ejected into a muddy ditch alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. An entrepreneur is born. Who wouldn't want to be someone else for fifteen minutes?
Director Spike Jonze restrains his rambunctious rock video-trained eye and conceptual swagger to serve Kaufman's script. Rules are established, genders are bent, the idea of becoming "someone else" is more frightening by the moment. It's a different can of existential worms than, say, "King of Comedy," wherein Jerry Lewis' talk show host reflected his own notorious prickliness as well as Johnny Carson's cool reserve. Malkovich is playing an idea more of celebrity, of elevated existence, than any reflection of whatever may go on in his head. Try not to hear too much before seeing the movie: I'll just mention that when Malkovich attempts to take the trip into his own head, he disguises himself as a tourist, with an I Love N.Y. cap pulled down over his expansive brow.
Jonze, 30, born Adam Singer, is widely admired for his video and commercials work, but he's not known for long moments of introspection. (He make his acting debut this fall as well, in "Three Kings.") While Kaufman's script had made the rounds for almost five years, Malkovich committed to the film after Jonze visited him at his home in France. "We didn't have to pitch it or anything. He read the script and he liked it for the same reasons we all liked it. It's funny, it's original. Y'know, complex character and relationships. He just had to figure out if it was something he really wanted to do or not. There wasn't anything we could say or do, he just had to say yes or no."
The film is as twisty as anything out there, and it's not a one-joke twist, like certain surprise endings that have made a mint this year, or the "discovery" in "The Truman Show." "Jonze hopes there are a few surprises for audiences after the first weekend. "I love watching movies where you don't know too much about it."
For someone whose work hadn't demonstrated knowing too much about directing actors, there's a consistency of tone that impresses. Probably the greatest challenge was how to direct someone playing a version of themselves. "Yeah, yeah," Jonze agrees. "It's like, 'John, you're not getting the character right. Malkovich would do this.' All the scenes with Malk where he was playing Malkovich, we talked about him as a character. So, John, this Malkovich thinks of himself as a lover and a ladies' man.' He'd just laugh and say, 'OK.' He read the script so he knew what was up."
So the movie went according to plan? "I dunno," he says, pausing again. "Overall I wanted things to be played like Charlie's writing, you can enjoy on a lot of different levels, the comedy, these really interesting ideas, these characters and these relationships. Playing those as our priority in terms of the acting, the art direction, the music, the wardrobe, and just play these characters, these people. All the other things, the ideas would be that much more interesting and the humor would be that much more fun."
Did he miss all the toys from his other work? "Um. No. I think there are certain scenes that required more complicated camera stuff. For the most part, we only had a certain amount of time to shoot the movie, and we had to make sure everything you were going to spend your time and money you really wanted and needed."
Jonze thinks for a long time when he's asked if his first feature held any surprises. "I dunno. It turned out basically... um. Everything changes in preproduction, casting, the script, all these little things keep developing, yet it turned out overall the way I wanted. It's the small stuff that changes."