Charlie Kaufman is one of the only writers whose name alone can sell a movie.

In just a few years, with a flurry of wildly imaginative films and three Oscar nominations, Kaufman has managed to join the likes of David Mamet, Stephen King, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde on the short list of screenwriting superstars.

It all started with "Being John Malkovich," which launched Kaufman from the status of obscure TV writer to the man whose words every actor wants to utter. Kaufman's creativity is matched only by his razor wit.

The premise is one of those "that just might be crazy enough to work" ideas that could only come from either genius or insanity. Office drones who toil on a surrealistically low-ceiled "seven and a halfth-floor" discover and exploit a portal that allows you to inhabit the mind and body of Malkovich for about 15 minutes, only to end up falling from the air onto the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Craig (John Cusack), a sad-sack street puppeteer, discovers the portal and tries to make a buck off it while also using it to get him closer to Maxine (Catherine Keener), the object of his unrequited lust. He muses: "Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?"

Indeed.

Craig's wife, Lotte — played by a frumped-up, hardly recognizable Cameron Diaz — experiences a revelation after she spends a few minutes in Malkovich's skin. She decides she enjoys the feeling of being a man so much that she's a transsexual.

To Lotte, this explains the raging infatuation that bubbles inside of her for Maxine after Craig grudgingly introduces her. Lotte's first trip inside Malkovich is followed by a hilariously awkward sequence in which the cold, manipulative Maxine visits the couple's apartment and sits on a couch as Craig and Lotte perch drooling on either side of her. Both pounce on Maxine at the same time, only to be brushed off.

Maxine agrees to date Lotte, but only when she's inside the mind of Malkovich. Craig is miffed at his wife's willingness to play along and inhabit a man who seduces the woman he'd like to romance, but he's hardly in a position to take the moral high ground.

"Don't stand in the way of my actualization as a man," Lotte scolds.

Like much of Kaufman's work, including "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," most of the attention is given to an awkward schlub with no game whatsoever, who pines for a woman who cares nothing for him. The writing, as well as Cusack's performance, is stingingly observant in the way it textures Craig's pathetic-ness and gets you to care for him even while he disgusts you.

Kaufman's protagonists are usually unappreciated artists with wild talents no one seems to care about. It's tough not to feel joy for Craig when he locks up Lotte and seizes control of Malkovich, his ultimate puppet.

There could be a touch of autobiography going on here. Kaufman was nobody's idea of a star when he first poured his heart into the screenplay, which he sent on a wing and a prayer to Francis Ford Coppola, who happened to love it and gave it to his then-son-in-law, music-video maker Spike Jonze, to direct.

Malkovich, a character actor who's perfect for the film because of his equal measures of recognition and obscurity, agreed to star only after months of begging. Once Malkovich was in, he was there all the way, hurling himself without pride or pretense into an often embarrassing part. Malkovich convincingly plays himself as a stuck-up, prim and untouchable louse whose personality changes depending on who's inside his head at the time. Jonze handles "Malkovich vision" by blurring the edges of the screen to make a sight oval, then having the inhabiter explain his or her thoughts in voiceover.

Keener, who has never been photographed so beautifully in her career, cuts a searing, if one-note, portrait of a cruel woman who takes pleasure in using her volcanic allure to control others like — here's that theme again — puppets.

"Being John Malkovich" makes you willing to have your strings pulled by the master writer.

Being John Malkovich (1999). Rated R. Starring John Cusack. Directed by Spike Jonze. 112 minutes. Available on DVD. For links to other reviews in the series, go online to www.azstarnet.com/sn/review.

● Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at pvillarreal@azstarnet.com or 573-4130.