A dishevelled puppeteer discovers a portal leading into the body of actor John Malkovich.
OK, so the movie debut of Spike Jonze, the pop video veteran best known for Fatboy Slim's remarkable Praise You clip, was never exactly going to be run-of-the-mill stuff. Even so, nothing prepares you for just how dazzlingly original Being John Malkovich actually is. Taking an idea which could have been stretched beyond breaking point or simply fallen flat in the wrong hands, Jonze turns it into one of the most startling pictures to grace the screen in a long time, a film that manages to be hysterically funny and achingly poignant, while making the possibility of living life as a crotchety, pompous movie star seem like the most attractive prospect in the world.
Cusack is Craig Schwartz, a straggly-haired, poverty-stricken puppeteer goaded by his animal-fixated wife (Diaz, almost unrecognisable under a gigantic brown wig) into getting a proper job, which he does, as a filing clerk on the seventh-and-a-half floor (a gag which really has to be seen) of a nondescript office building. It's here, while working for a dotty centenarian boss (Orson Bean) and lusting after colleague Maxine (Keener) that he stumbles upon the hidden portal that sucks unsuspecting parties straight into Malkovich's brain, thus giving the person the opportunity to literally "be" Malkovich for 15 minutes, before being spewed out beside the New Jersey turnpike. But what starts out as a money-spinning novelty quickly descends into insanity, as Diaz discovers the joys of the portal, Keener discovers the joys of Malkovich, and Malkovich (giving possibly the performance of a lifetime as, well, himself), slowly begins to twig that a bunch of complete strangers are messing with his head.
While the premise is an attention-grabber in itself, Being John Malkovich offers more than just a neat gimmick to win over its audience. Kaufman's script is an absolute winner, playing up the absurdity of the situation and sustaining the joke with a steady stream of new twists, yet giving its characters an abiding sense of humanity, and even explaining why it is that Malkovich's bonce should boast this unique feature. And the performances shine - Cusack and Diaz have rarely been better, while Keener is as splendid as ever as the opportunistic Maxine. But this is Malkovich's movie, and it's a constant joy to see him send himself up on such an alarming scale, coming over as the kind of obnoxious, self-obsessed idiot no actor would ever want to appear to be (the scene in which he, too, decides to try the portal into his brain is a masterpiece). At times it all becomes a little too surreal for its own good (a sequence in which a chimp regresses into its own childhood is, frankly, beyond the pale), but otherwise the multi-talented Jonze (appearing in front of the camera in this month's Three Kings), has created an outstanding piece of work, an off-kilter vision curiously reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, that isn't easily forgotten.
Chances are you'll never see another movie like Being John Malkovich, so make sure you don't miss out.