Discussions of oblique and cerebral matters like “self,” “identity,” and “soul” tend to take place either in the ivied walls of academia or amongst stoned first year philosophy students. For most people, the simple fact that we exist (which, in fact, isn’t that simple of a fact) is enough to take them through life content with their own self-definition as being “alive.” For screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York and Adaptation), the mind is his eternal playground, and in his debut feature, Being John Malkovich, Kaufman laid out the template of brain-bending and psycho-philosophical cinema that would come to define the rest of his career. Deftly exploring the nature of conscious entities, sexual identity, and obsessive creation, Being John Malkovich immediately marked Kaufman as one of America’s most unique screenwriters and remains one of the most impressive debuts of the last twenty years.

Charlie Kaufman explores, turns on its head, and obliterates the age-old fantasy of “What would it be like to see the world through someone else’s eyes?” Starting his career fascination with neurotic and dysfunctional artists, Kaufman creates the role of Craig Schwartz. John Cusack, admirably playing against type in his best role, brings Schwartz to life as a troubled schlemihl struggling to start a career as a puppet. With pretentious routines including “Craig’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment” and a puppet re-enactment of early erotic literature landmark “Abelard and Heloise,” his career struggles aren’t shocking. Played with both an innocent sincerity and a creepy depravity, Cusack turns Craig Schwartz into a poster child of “doing it for the art” even when your art is unhealthy and more than a little pathetic. Throw in Craig’s unfulfilled relationship with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, also in her best role), who takes care of dozens of exotic animals, and Craig is a melting pot of modern dysfunction.

To allay his financial difficulties (because “this winter economic climate” is killing the puppetry business), Craig takes a job as a filer at Lester Corp, a small company on the 7 1/2 floor of a New York highrise. Run by the 105 year old lech Dr. Lester (Orson Bean in a scene-stealing performance) with his deaf secretary Floris (Big Love‘s Mary Kay Place), Lester Corp is a bizarre enough place to work as it is, but it’s the secret hiding behind a filing cabinet that truly sets Lester Corp apart. One day, Craig accidentally discovers a door which is a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich. The portal allows the user to spend 15 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of John Malkovich and then, afterwards, they’re dumped on the side of the New Jersey turnpike. With the help of the seductive Maxine (a brilliant Catherine Keener) who both Craig and Lotte lust after, Craig hatches a scheme to get rich by selling tickets into the mind of John Malkovich, but when Craig gets jealous of the burgeoning romance between Maxine and Lotte (but only when Lotte is inside Malkovich), Craig hatches a scheme to use his puppeteering skills to take over Malkovich’s body once and for all.

Along with “Charlie Kaufmann” (and his fictional brother Donald) in Adaptation. and Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York, Craig Schwartz was the start of a long line of Kaufman “heroes” who served as much as commentaries on the creative process as they did as characters in their own right. Craig states several times throughout the film that he’s drawn to puppeteering because it allows him to live in the skin of others. One of the great ironies of the film is that he’s derided by many of the other characters and chided as creepy for this statement, but when they have the chance to live in the skin of John Malkovich, it is often a life-changing experience. With Lotte, it is so revelatory that she realizes she wants to have sexual re-assignment surgery. Later, without wanting to ruin one of the major plot points of the film, Craig’s artistic vision is justified when another, more famous performer begins to perform his act. Through Craig, Kaufman tries to show that even with a bold vision, the realization of art often depends on more than the artist and that the idiosyncrasies of an artist can turn off his audience.

With such wildly original scripts, it’s far too easy to give all of the credit to Charlie Kaufman in his films, but Spike Jonze (who cut his teeth making music videos such as the iconic “Sabotage” for Beastie Boys) deserves his fair share of recognition for this literal head-trip of a film. Similar to Adaptation. (though that film would greatly expand upon the technique), the film features a series of visually outrageous moments which surely went above and beyond what was required by the script. Whether it was a scene told from the point of view of a monkey as he tries to rescue his parents from poachers, John Malkovich’s trip into his own head, or a heartbreaking final shot where one character is forever trapped in the subconscious of a small child, Spike Jonze left his indelible stylistic mark on Being John Malkovich and began one of the best director/writer pairings of the 90s/2000s.

Spike Jonze also managed to elicit star-turn performances (easily the best performances from at least three of the stars) from an otherwise less than miraculous cast. Cameron Diaz is one of the least impressive big stars of her generation, but stripped of her natural beauty and given a unique (and delayed) sexual awakening, she turns Lotte into one of the few redeeming and innocent characters in the film. John Cusack made a great and early name for himself as the loveable and adrift Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, but he’s spent most of the rest of his career mired in romcom Hell. With greasy, disheveled hair, a borderline erotic fixation with his puppets, and a level of mental stability that steadily erodes throughout the film, John Cusack could have been committing career suicide by playing this part. Yet, he committed with such fervor to the deeply unsympathetic role that there is a near universal consensus on his unnerving portrayal being the best of his career. John Malkovich had the difficult task of playing a near satirical version of himself as well as other characters controlling himself, and he handled the schizophrenic nature of the role with shocking ease.

However, Catherine Keener (who was the already accomplished indie actress in the film) gives the truly incendiary performance of the film as a character who is ultimately hedonism and temptation incarnate. From the nonchalant way she carries herself to her complete dismissal of Craig (and even her dismissal of Lotte when she isn’t in Malkovich’s body), she drips with an unattainable sexuality. Three separate characters lust for her (though one is lusting partially against his will), and although Maxine is an obviously manipulative and evil sociopath, it is a testament to Catherine Keener’s sultry performance that it is instantly obvious why everyone in the film wants her. Along the lines of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Catherine Keener inhabits a character whose seductive prowess instantly explains the countless misdeeds that are committed to please her.

In addition to his musings on the nature of creation, Being John Malkovichprimarily concerns itself with the definition of “self.” Is your body what makes you “you,” or is there a more spiritual content? Do you have a soul? Does this soul live on even when it is disconnected from your physical body? I don’t think the film is providing serious answers to these sorts of questions (at least not within the context of this film) because Synecdoche, New York presented a deeply cynical take on so-called “spiritual” questions but as a satire of soul-searching metaphysical questions, it’s endlessly clever. Kaufman constantly adds new layers to the script and while the complexity never reaches the recursive nirvana of Synecdoche, his creation of his own rules for sentience allow a striking look at how we view others by forcing us to view ourselves through others’ eyes.

In Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman fired the opening salvo to the world informing everyone that he was a writer of immense talent and such vast imagination and creativity that his films would simply drip with more style than he would know what to do with. In fact, there are moments in Being John Malkovich that are so outright quirky that they almost distract from the actual themes of the film. If Craig Schwartz found a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has provided his audience with a portal into his own mind and when your time is up, you aren’t dumped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Instead, you’re left wrestling with the writing talent of the most wholly realized artists in the history of American cinema.

Final Score: A