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Film Studies: Bald, blank, brainy. It can only be John Malkovich

Something strange even for the movie business has been evident in the last few weeks. I refer to a movie known as Being John Malkovich. A friend asked me what I thought of it, and I pass on the opinion I gave him - that for 45 minutes or so it is stunningly original, and so funny you can't stop laughing. "I'd settle for 25 minutes of that," said my friend, in a shrewd comment on modern pictures.

No one has ever seen anything as blithely demented as this before, and that is what prompts the question - would it be as good and outrageous if it was Being Bruce Willis or Being Keanu Reeves? No way, I say, because this fanciful "being there" could hardly register without the lugubrious insouciance of Mr Malkovich himself, who has passed through the stages of "genius" and "great man" in a matter of a few days, and is now numbered among essential household appliances - like the water closet or a pop- up toaster.

I am obliged to make some sort of a description of it for you. This is not easy, or sensible, or likely to inspire your belief. When I said "original", it was a way of trying to suggest that no American film has ever been so surreal, or so beyond synopsis.

Nevertheless. John Cusack is an unsuccessful puppeteer. Cameron Diaz is his wife. He applies for a job to make ends meet, and is hired by a company that exists on the seven-and-a-halfth floor of a city building. As such, it is squeezed in between 7 and 8, with the result that ceilings are comically low. One day, Cusack discovers a hole in the wall behind a filing cabinet. Enter the hole and you slip helplessly down a greased tunnel before, with a pop and a roar, you land inside John Malkovich's head. That is how you come to "be" him, looking out at the world through his eye-holes.

USA Films, the company distributing the picture, has been sending out life-size masks of John Malkovich - bald dome, hanging jaw, pale skin, blank eyes. My five-year-old son put on the mask, and I can only try to convey to you the horror of this effect - that my dear boy had indeed become John Malkovich. For I had never previously had such an opportunity for seeing the ghoul, the ghost, the ineffably sinister thing it is to be John Malkovich.

Time now to say that Being John Malkovich not only stars Mr Malkovich, but could not have been made without his consent. And the film-makers - writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze - say he was always their one and only choice. As if, somehow, this conceit turns on the special look, manner and status that Malkovich has already obtained.

This is where it gets really interesting. Malkovich is 45, from Illinois, and a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Ensemble (which included Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and Glenne Headly, his first wife). He played the unruly brother in Sam Shepard's True West in the late 1970s, and he was Biff, the son, in the Dustin Hoffman production of Death of a Salesman. That set up a movie career, the highlights of which have been Places in the Heart, Empire of the Sun, Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, Port in The Sheltering Sky, Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the brilliant killer pursued by Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire, Jekyll and Hyde in Mary Reilly, Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, and a very bad guy in ConAir.

This record has "proved" several things. Malkovich is not a Hollywood leading man - audiences find him, variously, chilly, unattractive, repulsive, or anathema. They will not go to see him, therefore, unless his presence is suitably exonerated by roles of larger-than-life infamy or villainy. To all of which, Mr Malkovich, a man of unusual ability, intelligence and strength of character, has responded with disdain and superiority, as if to say, what does the great, unwashed public think it is?

In our addled age of celebrity, this rebellion has great potential. For here is a case in which the public has registered its dislike of an actor, and the actor has turned around and snarled, "Not as much as I despise you!" Hence the novelty - sustained by Mr Malkovich nearly alone - that you can be loathed, feared and scorned while still being successful and ubiquitous.

It is my own guess that just as Mr Malkovich in his performances has become more insolent and dismissive of us, so he has begun to make himself inescapable. It goes without saying that this stealthy example is all we have in challenging the stupid stress this culture places on being likeable and good-looking.

So Being John Malkovich is more than half a dazzling comedy (I fear it runs out of steam), and more than jet fuel in the soaring arc of this particular actor. It offers the prospect that there could be an end to those monstrous falsehoods of Americana - "Hi, how are you?" "Have a good one!", the degradation of character, difficulty and prickliness, and that lying smile known as Clintonism. With just a hundred people like, or trying to be, John Malkovich, America could be an inhabitable republic again.

`Being John Malkovich' (15) is at the LFF (see below) Tue & Wed, and goes on general release next March