Inside John Malkovich

Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness was forecast by his 1938 novel La Nausee, in which a solitary named Antoine Roquentin, in the privacy of his journal, analyzes the agony of his existence: "La nausee ... c'est moi." The comedy Being John Malkovich opens with a similarly pain-infused intimacy, in a stunning solo "Dance of Despair and Disillusion" performed with a marionette by a down-and-out puppeteer named Craig Schwartz. For Craig, there is no question: Being is Nothingness.

We know this because the puppet is modeled on the puppeteer, with his acrobat's body but the hurt eyes of professional failure. His longing for escape combines with his longing for erotic love in a painful and hilarious rendition of the love story of Abelard and Heloise, a performance that will end his career on the street—"consciousness is a terrible curse," he laments with his enduring wit—and will force him to seek work in the real world. Fortunately, his being "a short-statured man with nimble fingers" qualifies him for a filing job in a "low overhead" office located in a bit of space between two regulation floors of a skyscraper. With the help of a crowbar, we enter this truncated world with Craig, and now begins the serious fun.

The Heloise puppet gets her toenails painted red and is recycled in silver sandals as Craig's co-worker Maxine, whose deadpan is deadly enough to enthrall the precariously balanced Craig, who falls. But if there is no surprise here, there are many to come while our hapless hero journeys out of himself and, literally, through a portal, into the otherworld of John Malkovich's brain. Needless to say, motion-sickness is not what Sartre meant by Nausea, but like the queasiness audiences discovered with the return to hand-held camerawork in The Blair Witch Project, the lurch between worlds manages fleetingly to simulate the experience.

"It's better than your wildest dreams," is how Craig and Maxine market the journey into the "being" of John Malkovich, but the point of it is that "being inside another's skin" is about "moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently." The mechanics are too zany and convoluted to explain with a straight face, but the effect is definitely worth the price of admission, so to speak, because, as Craig's wife Lottie says after trying it out for herself, "Being inside did something to me. It made sense." As it does for the audience too, absurdly.

Mostly, the movie functions best when the audience is allowed to intuit its meaning without requiring the laws of art and nature to dovetail too precisely. "The Dance of Despair and Disillusion" reverberates because it's unclear at first whether the intended word is "disillusion" or "dissolution." Realities dissolve and characters dissolve into each other in this film, and never more brilliantly than when John Malkovich himself becomes the puppet/dancer. When at last the word appears on the screen in written form, it is clarified as "disillusion," but the effect of the uncertainty has already been achieved, and this ambiguity has become its own interesting experience.

In other words, film maker Spike Jonze can't be pinned down as closely as might be desired, and although that will always be distracting, Being John Malkovich succeeds overall as an original concept imagined in inventive ways and realized in an unusual blend of farce and tragedy. The boundaries of these characters are blurred, and so they flow in and out of one another in a series of agile stunt-like interactions, inviting us to wonder "Who's who?" and "What's what?" while simultaneously laughing out loud.

There is precedent for this stylized blend of the real and the unreal asserted in action and emotion, and a good look at it is offered in the fascinating new book Silent Stars, published by Knopf and written by Jeanine Basinger, a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University. About Pickford and Fairbanks—and the lineup of silent stars to follow them in that famously brief but everlasting era—Basinger writes, "Sometimes they played ordinary people like their fans and sometimes they played fantasy figures who were rich and royal; but always they connected. And as the fan magazines promoted them, the myth was born that they were special, yes, but also just like the audience. The implication was clear: You, too, could be a star."

The premise of Being John Malkovich is that Craig Schwartz can have everything at once by literally becoming a celebrity and thus "being" both a success and a puppeteer. Like Basinger's silent film stars—"doubly powerful, both as objects of desire and as role models"—Malkovich holds out the mythic promise that we can escape the quotidian, while we, in fact, are what fills up his own void. Or so the movie seems to be saying. As commentary on celebrity and the marketing of personality, it leaves a lot to the imagination, since this "metaphysical can of worms" (as Craig calls the portal into John Malkovich's brain) is definitely not dumped out and sorted.

From the opening scene—the dancer/marionette controlled by the intricate manipulation of strings—I found myself thinking about the trademark flamboyance of a yo-yo in similarly dexterous hands. Yo-yo tricks can be privately tried at home, but when they're performed in school yards or on street corners, crowds will gather with palpable attraction. The reason for this is that nothing can go too dangerously wrong—the spool is tethered, after all—but still, if there isn't enough play remaining in the string to bring the yo-yo back in, the trick fails. After the yo-yo is flicked out, in the compelling suspense of the experience there are two questions being asked: How fancy is the trick? And then, once it's over, can the yo-yo be brought back in?

In Being John Malkovich the trick is challenging and captivating. Craig (John Cusack), his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz), and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) are each, as characters, quite peculiar but very endearing, and Malkovich plays "himself" as passionately and enigmatically as he does any of his other best roles. This is ensemble work, where these fine actors are dancing with each other in ways beautiful to behold. For this reason, there is occasionally a noticeably improvisational feel to the interaction (not to mention the dialogue), but this is a small price to pay for the privilege of watching. As they play with the issues of gender-bending (and blending), of aging and rebirth, of celebrity and entrepreneurship, and of the ambition for both success and basic human happiness, they are dancing around the essential questions and eagerly exploring the possibilities of answers. Even richer, they are enabling within the moviegoer an individual version of this opportunity to toy with life's big questions, which we will not answer. It is a quirky film in this way and—beyond hilarious—quite satisfying.

So does it matter that the yo-yo doesn't snap back? My own experience during the course of watching the film was in itself a progression. First I wondered, once the premise was laid out, how it could possibly be resolved. Then I became curious—and like Alice in Wonderland, "curiouser"—about the life within that alternative reality. This then firmed my commitment to it and my consequent wishing that a satisfying epiphany might be achievable. When the film then ended with an unfortunately lame double fast-forward, I decided that the stunt of the film, in hindsight, would probably dissolve under scrutiny.

But does it dissolve? With the privilege of time, what I remember are the glorious moments of exuberant invention, where nothing is made of Lottie and her pet chimpanzee sharing a juice box, or—equally—of John Malkovich lining up with all the other hopefuls to experience himself too. Written by Charlie Kaufman, the dialogue is cinematic in its efficiency: "Are you married?" "Yeah, but enough about me." And the physicality of the movie is both antic and controlled, fearless and tender, wildly comic and bittersweet, not unlike Jeanine Basinger's description of the silent stars: "In their world of silence, these actors and actresses use their complete bodies in performance, treating the self as a single expressive unit."

In an echo of Sartre's definition of being as what you create for yourself, in Being John Malkovich, the world is divided into "those who go after what they want and those who don't." What follows as a consequence of those choices is a mystery in this movie, but at least the question is explicitly asked: "What is this strange power that Malkovich exudes?"

The actor is himself an accomplice to the theft of his very being, in 15-minute increments, by random others who are in flight from their own lives. By their entering his body and maneuvering him as Lottie does imperfectly and Craig does with the same sole control as a puppeteer's, the star's strange power increases, as does theirs. Together, they become ridiculously powerful. The movie's image of it, indelibly grandiose, is a Lincoln Center extravaganza.

But the moral of the story is that back on that New York street corner, with his makeshift puppet theater and the grave intensity of his longing, it was his own authentic version of this that Craig Schwartz was trying to achieve in the first place.