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'Being John Malkovich' Is A Real Head Trip.

IF YOU COULD be anyone, who would you be? Joe Piscopo? Mason Reese? Ivana Trump? Maybe not, but one thing's for sure: nobody answers that question truthfully when they say "I'd be me!"

The premise of Being John Malkovich is so strong that it seemed impossible for the film itself to be as good. Basically, BJM is about an office worker who discovers a secret tunnel behind some filing cabinets. Entering the tunnel causes one to be thrust into the body of John Malkovich. You see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels, and he never knows you're there. Then, after 15 minutes of Malkovichian fun, you're spit out of the sky and land by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike (this may seem illogical, but those who have been there can aver that there is, in fact, no greater set of polar opposites than the mind of John Malkovich and the New Jersey Turnpike).

So does the film stack up to this overwhelmingly great idea? Well, not at first -- at first, it has to reveal the idea through dialogue and action, and while it does a decent job of that, everyone who goes to see BJM knows that much about it already, so the opening seems like wasted time. However, once the particulars of the tunnel to the mind of Malkovich are made plain, the film actually gets better than its premise.

That's pretty unlikely, even with the best of movies. Like, there's that one where the big boat sinks, and since the director knew that the film wasn't better than the premise, he saved the big sinking boat part for the end. Or that one where the guy says

"Rosebud," and then dies, and then they don't tell you what "Rosebud" means until the film's almost over. Or that one where there's this big War in the Stars -- I think it's called Spaceballs.

Being John Malkovich doesn't need that kind of cheap trickery because it has a sharp script, a lot of oddball plot twists, and some great actors who can really pull off the weird and eccentric characters called for by the story. First of all, there's Catherine Keener, who is no doubt the best film actress of her generation. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Catherine Keener is such a good performer that I could be entertained just watching her shop for cleaning supplies.

Keener plays Maxine, the object of Craig Shwartz's unrequited love. Shwartz (played by John Cusak, who, like Keener, has that quality that makes him interesting even when he's just making the slightest motion of his eyes) is a puppeteer, but his shows are not so kid friendly.

After failing to win fame and success with his sultry, carnal marionette version of the lives of Abelard and Heloise, he is forced to look for a straight job. He answers an ad from the licentious, 103-year-old Dr. Lester (Orson Bean), who runs a filing service on the cramped seventh floor of a bizarre 19th-century building. The office is the tableau for some excellent running gags: the ceilings are only 5 feet high, Dr. Lester's secretary can't seem to understand anyone (she hears "Genghis Al Capone" when Lester says "Get Guiness on the phone!"), and Lester himself is prone to long-winded rhapsodies about his frustrated sexual fantasies ("In my dream," he says "my spunk is like manna to them!").

Shwartz meets Maxine there and falls madly in love, even though he's married to animal-obsessed pet store clerk Lottie (Cameron Diaz, made to look dowdy, because there are no actual dowdy people in the world, only beautiful women with bad hair-dos). When he discovers the secret passageway, he thinks he can use the route into Malkovich as a way to get inside Maxine. She, however, is more interested in the profit motive, and begins selling $200 tickets to poor shmucks who want, if only for 15 minutes, to know what it feels like to be a famous person.

I'd like to say that this is where the film gets strange, except that it gets so much stranger a little further in that that would be inaccurate. And even if I were to reveal that next plot twist, it still wouldn't be the strangest point in Being John Malkovich, which, with increasing oddness, serves up ancient scientists and temporary transsexuality and the weirdest threesome ever filmed (i.e. John Malkovich, Maxine and whoever's inside of John Malkovich's head at the time).

Being John Malkovich explicitly raises questions about love and identity, and then doggedly refuses to answer them, which is refreshing in a world full of pat responses to the questions "What is love," "Who am I," and "Wouldn't it be cool to be John Malkovich?" What's most strange and fascinating about BJM, though, is the way John Malkovich himself is used -- his life, his fame, and his particular affections are all important plot elements. At no point, however, does Malkovich become the protagonist of the story. In fact, his character becomes increasingly peripheral as he gets more screen time. It's a testament to his acting skill that he doesn't take over the film: his performance is so seamless that when his body and mind are controlled by another it's as though he's actually dropped out of the picture.

It's pretty rare for this many actors of this quality to come together on a project that's so inventive and engaging, and it's especially rare for them to do so in a film that focuses on sliding down a muddy, membranous tunnel into the mind of a balding character actor, so if you enjoy rare gems and metempsychosis, don't miss Being John Malkovich.

Being John Malkovich opens Friday at Catalina (881-0616) theater.

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