NEW YORK — Send in the clowns! While most movies fall into well-worn patterns, this season a handful of comic talents are cooking up inventive new approaches.
Making us laugh may be their main agenda, but in the process they're shaking up old formulas and giving us some of the most surprising cinema we've had in ages.
The most uproarious example is Being John Malkovich, which pitches so many curveballs that even its title is a joke. Seeing those words on a theater marquee, unwary moviegoers might expect a documentary about the respected actor whose credits range from "In the Line of Fire" to "Death of a Salesman."
The picture bearing his name is anything but a documentary, though, and Malkovich isn't even the main character. The hero is an unemployed puppeteer (John Cusack) who takes a filing-clerk job with an obscure Manhattan company.
Prowling the murky corners of his new office, he finds a secret passageway that whisks him to a strange destination: For exactly 15 minutes, he finds himself peering through the eyes of John Malkovich as the actor goes about his daily life. When the quarter-hour is up, the bewildered visitor flies out of Malkovich's mind and into a ditch alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, where he dusts himself off and makes his way home.
What's going on here? Our hero has no idea, but he and his new girlfriend see moneymaking potential in his discovery. They place an ad in the paper, and soon the office is filled with stargazers happy to pay for 15 minutes in Malkovich's mind.
Still unresolved are several key questions. What accounts for this bizarre phenomenon? What will happen if Malkovich finds out about the mental trespassers trooping through his brain? And weirdest of all, what would happen if he walked through the passageway and entered his own consciousness as a visitor?
As if this weren't enough material, "Being John Malkovich" has a number of subplots that spin in various directions - including some explicit sexual content - before dovetailing in time for the final credits. One focuses on the hero's girlfriend, a cold-hearted co-worker who's not averse to disrupting his 10-year marriage. Another deals with his wife, who cultivates a passion for pets while waiting to have a real family.
And then there's that odd little company where the story jumps into action: Why is it located in an architectural twilight zone between the building's seventh and eighth floors, and just what business is it in, anyway?
"Being John Malkovich" is directed by Spike Jonze, coming to feature films after a music-video career, and written by Charlie Kaufman, also a newcomer to theatrical movies. Their work is so bold, funny, and original that it's hard to believe they aren't wide-screen veterans.
At a time when many filmmakers pride themselves on directing their own screenplays, it's worth noting that another of this year's most brilliant comedies - "Election" - is also the work of a writer-director duo. Perhaps the movie world is returning to the bygone era when well-teamed collaborators rather than do-it-all auteurs set Hollywood's highest standards.
"Being John Malkovich" has enough gender-bending sexual twists to earn an R rating even if it didn't have a large four-letter word vocabulary, so it certainly isn't for everyone.
Audiences at various film festivals have embraced it warmly, though, and it's easy to imagine all kinds of Oscars for its ingenious makers as well as the superbly chosen cast including Catherine Keener as the hero's partner, Cameron Diaz as his long-suffering wife, and Orson Bean as an eccentric old man. Not to mention Cusack and Malkovich, who fill the screen with comic energy.
This week's other exercise in self-reflexive cinema - the fancy term for movies about movies- is Man of the Century, a time-warping comedy about a '20s sort of guy who happens to live in the '90s.
His name is Johnny Twennies, and he bangs out a New York newspaper column when he isn't squabbling with his wealthy mom, dodging crooks who want to rough him up, or romancing his girlfriend, a thoroughly '90s woman who runs a trendy art gallery. Johnny doesn't just dream about the '20s, he actually lives there, at least in his own mind. And the movie is completely on his side - depicting his adventures in black-and-white cinematography and filling the soundtrack with old-fashioned music.
"Man of the Century" is basically a one-joke movie as it plays two American eras off each other for laughs and occasional pathos. It's clever enough to combine strategies from pictures as different as "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "The Brady Bunch Movie," though, and modest enough to deliver all its goods in a snappy 77 minutes. Comedy fans and nostalgia buffs will find enough pleasures here to justify the price of a '90s ticket.
* Both movies have R ratings. 'Being John Malkovich' contains brief but graphic sex, a subplot about homosexuality, and vulgar language. 'Man of the Century' contains foul language and cartoonish violence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society