Imagine this. You're a puppeteer, not a kids' party kind of puppeteer, but an artist of the strings whose pi'ce de rsistance is a furious dance of existential despair for a marionette who looks just like you. That's Craig Schwartz's (John Cusack) life, and welcome to it. He is, of course, perpetually out of work; he sneers at the rival who engineers gigs like manipulating a 60-foot puppet of Emily Dickinson to the accompaniment of a reading of The Belle of Amherst as a novelty act, a commercial whore. Schwartz gets beaten up when an outraged dad realizes his small daughter is watching a street-corner puppet show recounting the romance of Heloise and Abelard, complete with erotic talk and crude amorous gestures. And just when things seem as though they can't get any worse, Craig's animal-loving wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, so drabbed-down as to be unrecognizable) starts insisting that he get some kind of job so they can continue to live in their airless basement apartment and support her neurotic menagerie, which ranges from a perpetually shrieking parrot to a chimpanzee with an ulcer and his own shrink.

Craig takes a job as a filing clerk for the Lester Corporation, sandwiched between the seventh and eighth floors of an aging office building in the Wall Street area. And it's there that he finds the portal, a tiny door hidden behind some filing cabinets that leads to a tunnel, which in turn leads directly into the mind of John Malkovich, who plays himself with remarkable good humor, even when the script calls upon him to mimic that despairing puppet dance or refer to himself as an 'overrated sack of shit.' You can only stay for 15 minutes before being rudely ejected onto a swampy spot alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, but it's a bizarre, voyeuristic sort of thrill, even if all Mr. Malkovich is doing is eating toast or ordering bath accessories from a mail-order catalogue. Craig shares the information with predatory co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener)-'Call me Max,' she says briskly, which is the way she does and says everything-who sees a moneymaking opportunity ripe for exploitation. But the invasion of John Malkovich's brain offers other opportunities as well, tricky ones that quickly land all three principals-and, of course, Mr. Malkovich-in a romantic kerfuffle of uniquely confusing proportions and configuration.

The trouble with Being John Malkovich is that it's hard to figure out how to recommend it: If you spill too much of the plot, you wind up undermining the movie you want to support; if you try to explain its unique tone, you're doomed to failure; and if you say something superlative, like that it's the most engagingly loopy film of the year, you risk setting it up to fail. Being John Malkovich is weirdly funny, and weird really is the operative word; the details are as peculiar as the premise, and the whole thing inspires laughter of knowing discomfort rather than easy yuks. It's hard to imagine a more perfect performer around whom to build such hugely eccentric edifice than the faintly reptilian Malkovich, of the whispery voice, domed skull, glinting eyes and peculiarly insinuating manner. By the time he takes a trip through the portal and into his own head (within which, of course, everyone is John Malkovich, from the patrons at a swank restaurant to the lounge singer in the sparkly dress), the story has wrapped itself into a spiral so tight it's tough to breathe; it's very much to screenwriter Charles Kaufman's credit that he manages to keep the thing going and wrap it up in a surprisingly satisfactory way.

Perhaps it's best simply to say that Being John Malkovich is sui generis, a comic invention that simply must be seen to be believed.

--Maitland McDonagh