Those with a taste for the outlandish will lap up this surreal comic fantasy. Being John Malkovich looks like it could have sprung fully formed out of the head of Terry Gilliam, but is in fact the product of the clearly warped minds of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. Twisted, smart, funny, demented and hugely entertaining, suffice to say, this is one of the most thrillingly original movies Hollywood has ever produced.
Our first sight of this skewed universe is a creepily life-like puppet show, with the camera pulling back to reveal the lank-haired beardie pulling the strings: Craig Schwartz (Cusack), who blames his chronic unemployment, life disappointments and stifling marriage to pet-shop employee Lotte (Diaz) on the fact that he's an undiscovered (and misunderstood) creative genius. Schwartz's pitiable domestic situation - a dank, pokey flat shared with his mousey wife and a Dolittle-like menagerie (including a neurotic chimp named Elijah) - only adds to the sense of freakish misery in Schwartz's life.
But the film and Schwartz's existence, truly spirals down the rabbit hole when he joins LesterCorp, housed in a five-foot-high crawlspace between floors, and discovers the portal behind a filing cabinet. Soon, Craig and office vixen Maxine (Keener) are charging urban thrill-seekers for a 15-minute access-all-areas excursion into the recesses of Malkovich's psyche, while themselves exploiting the inside view of Malkovich's life to probe and manipulate their own fantasies and identities. Once Lotte learns about the Malko-tour, it's a three-for-all cavalcade of sexual confusion and recrimination.
Cusack initially presents Craig as a loveable loser but, as Craig's obsession with Maxine and Malkovich reaches unhealthy dimensions, his actions become less and less sympathetic. Trying to do with people what he does with his marionettes, Craig becomes unpleasantly tyrannical. Cusack handles the transformation with praiseworthy subtlety and, Keener is typically acerbic as the in-yer-face Maxine, but it's Diaz who's the revelation. The model-turned- actress has proved before that she relishes edgy and unpredictable roles, but here she so gleefully trashes the sweet bombshell image of My Best Friend's Wedding and There's Something About Mary that it wouldn't be startling to hear she's decided to play grim, fright-permed frumps for the rest of her career.
No explanation is offered (or sought) for the unpredictable, fantasia-strewn paths the story takes us down, but none is needed. You either go along with the peculiar fantasy ride or you don't. And if you can't click in to the absurdist vision, well no matter, because Jonze's deadpan view of proceedings provides an odd logic of its own and makes it feasible to enjoy this simply as a bemused observer.
Kudos should go to John Malkovich for being so willing to send up his image as a smug, preening prima donna. Playing himself could be the best career move he ever made.