We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The most frequent complaint readers make about reviewers is that they spoil the moviegoing experience by disclosing too much plot. In the case of formulaic films whose outcomes are obvious from the first five minutes—which means just about everything Hollywood currently releases—this charge strikes me as rather ingenuous. But Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze’s feature directorial debut, offers a dizzyingly convoluted, Mobius-strip narrative that defies precis. (I’d have to watch the movie several more times before I could accurately recapitulate its plot, let alone attempt to interpret its meaning.) Charlie Kaufman’s off-the-wall screenplay springs a plethora of surprises, each more unpredictable and outrageous than the last. In order not to deny readers the delicious pleasure I experienced in coming to the movie cold, I will limit myself to commenting on the opening-reel, plot-establishing setup. This restriction essentially forces me to write a nonreview, but I can’t think of a better option. As a colleague commented to me on our way out of the press screening, “I don’t envy you having to write about this one.”

Being John Malkovich’s credit sequence prepares us for a unique experience: We’re shown a wooden marionette performing a dance of existential angst. The camera tilts up to reveal the intense, woebegone face of the puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), and we immediately realize that the performance is an expression of his troubled soul.

Craig is an uncompromising, uncompensated Manhattan street artist whose erotically explicit curbside play about Heloise and Abelard bemuses kids and horrifies parents. (He watches with disgust a TV newscast touting a rival puppeteer’s successful production of The Belle of Amherst featuring a 60-foot Emily Dickinson marionette.) He’s married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), a warm-hearted pet-shop employee who, frustrated by the couple’s inability to afford having a child, fills their shabby apartment with ailing animals.

Tired of being impoverished, Craig answers an ad for a position as a filing clerk at LesterCorp, a small business located on Floor 7 1/2 of the Mertin-Flemmer building. In an orientation video, Craig learns that the low-ceilinged suite of offices was originally designed by the developer to serve as a user-friendly environment for his little-person wife. LesterCorp inhabits the claustrophobic space—no taller than a child’s playhouse—because the rent is understandably cheap. The staff is forced to hunch through its corridors like a convention of osteoporotics.

Craig is immediately drawn to a co-worker—sleek, tough-as-nails Maxine (Catherine Keener)—who coldly shoots down even his most tentative offers to befriend her. One day, he accidentally drops a folder behind an ancient filing cabinet. In the course of trying to retrieve it, he discovers a small, boarded-up door. Wrenching it open, he uncovers a passageway that he timidly enters, only to be sucked into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (who gamely portrays himself). After 15 minutes of being Malkovich, Craig is unceremoniously expelled, dumped onto a bank alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. Empowered by his knowledge of this portal to Malkovich, Craig exploits it for profit and to intensify his relationships with Maxine and Lotte.

Having established this bizarre premise, Jonze and Kaufman develop it through every possible permutation, including Malkovich entering himself (with astonishing consequences) and the two female characters engaging in a frenzied chase sequence through the actor’s subconscious. To learn more about what transpires—and how could any moviegoer resist wanting to?—you’ll have to watch the film yourself.

Cusack, whose gentleness works against him in conventional leading man roles, is ideally cast as the unfulfilled Craig. With a wispy beard and ratty hair, he’s a study in benign dejection. A deglamorized Diaz—frizzy hair, minimal makeup—offers further proof, as if any were still needed, that she’s not just another pretty face. Keener, one of the few bright spots in director Tom DiCillo’s throwaway comedies Box of Moonlight and The Real Blonde, gives a star-making performance as the supremely self-possessed Maxine. Orson Bean resurrects his dormant career as the head of LesterCorp, a vibrant elderly man who harbors some strange secrets, and Mary Kay Place makes the most of her brief appearances as his secretary, Floris, who possesses only a nodding comprehension of the English language.

Malkovich proves to be an awfully good sport about burlesquing himself, something that most performers are too vain and humorless even to consider. One of the screenplay’s most peculiar assumptions is that people would risk their lives to inhabit this balding, paunchy, rather creepy actor instead of, say, Brad Pitt or George Clooney. This is just one example of the idiosyncratic inner logic of Kaufman’s writing. He has created a parallel universe that looks and sounds like ours, but operates by a different set of principles. And by presenting Kaufman’s outlandish, Lewis Carroll-like screenplay in a measured, realistic style, Jonze draws us into a world that, if depicted fantastically, would be easy to shrug off.

Malkovich joins other recent American screen comedies that have shucked off meanness and grossness. Character-driven films such as Bowfinger, Dick, and Happy, Texas shimmer with subdued charm, treating their protagonists and viewers with affection and respect. Trailing clouds of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and George Roy Hill, these movies hardly break new ground. But the cutting-edge Malkovich more than compensates for that shortcoming. Jonze has created nothing less than a jaw-droppingly original, fiendishly inventive instant classic.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jonze has graduated from award-winning music videos, commercials, and short films to make one of the most triumphant directorial debuts in screen history. (Last month, the Bethesda-raised Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, stole all of his scenes in his first substantial acting role as the unworldly redneck Pvt. Conrad Vig in Three Kings.) Soaring on the crest of two well-deserved victories, Jonze has established himself as a major film presence nearly overnight. In the coming months, I’m certain that aspiring directors would happily hock their viewfinders for 15 minutes of being Spike Jonze. CP