For all the well-deserved praise heaped on Jonze and Kaufman, then and since, their wild eccentricity works only with actors firing on all cylinders. Having last seen the film years ago, I could still remember the way Keener grabs hold of the proceedings with a heavy sigh, then commands Craig, Lotte, and the audience by shifting mercilessly between flirtatiousness and humiliation. Even when Maxine's unpleasantness subsides, Keener makes you feel as if you were wrong for not seeing it coming. Malkovich is all the more impressive for being less showy: somehow, he makes his metaperformance — playing himself, playing other people playing him — look effortless.
The ensemble slowly builds a head of steam and then hurtles forward, capped by a rollicking chase sequence through Malkovich's subconscious that Kaufman would use again, in slightly altered form, in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." No matter. It's a good enough idea to be used twice, as are many of the zany details in "Malkovich," from Diaz's uncontrollable frizz to a satirical informational video that Craig watches early on.
In the end, though, the film succeeds in spite of, and not because of, its weird factor. When you strip away the excess, you're left with a simple story of four people — the actor, the geek, his wife, and their lover — exerting control, losing it, grasping after it, surrendering to it. "Malkovich," like Malkovich, is just the vessel, and anyway the kind of control Craig seeks when he pulls his puppet's strings is illusory at best, and possibly even ruinous. Craig knows it: as he tells Malkovich when he demands to enter the portal, "that would pale in comparison to the actual experience."