On the whole, I'd rather be in Warren Beatty than in John Malkovich. I'd live la vida Beatty in, say, London, his pied-a-terre, about '74. You know, the legendary pre-Bening days--supermodels, Lufthansa stews, starlets.

Alas, Beatty is entirely too self-important these days, to say nothing of sanctimonious and deluded, to be an active collaborator in something so utterly, deliciously insane as "Being John Malkovich," in which the majestic Malkovich lightens up, big time. He allows himself to be invaded by all manner of lesser beings, all in the cause of making a fabulous movie.

Certainly the year's most inventive film and one of the most purely enjoyable, Spike Jonze's movie watches as some small-time hucksters begin selling tickets into Malkovich's head. For a lousy $200 and an hour or so in line, you can take a vacation from the banal self with all its pitiful dilemmas and spend 15 minutes inside the head of the movie star.

You get to watch through John's eyes as he picks ties, makes small talk, rehearses, even has sexual encounters. On the downside, when your Johntime is up, you're dumped on the shoulder of the Jersey Turnpike on that particularly dead stretch halfway between Newark and Manhattan where mobsters go to die.

"Being John Malkovich" is a document of pure surrealism. It doesn't take place in a dream universe but in our own, with but one strange, unexplainable twist. And after allowing for that, all events transpire with deadpan accuracy. This probably is how John Malkovich would act if he became aware that his frontal brain was a low-rent tourist destination.

The perpetrators of this thought crime are a sleazy loser puppeteer, his frumpy wife and their joint mistress, a sexy vamp with the self-possession of a burglar. A typical example of the film's merry spirit of inversion: Cameron Diaz, one of the world's most beautiful women, plays the frump, while Catherine Keener, not one of the world's most beautiful women, plays the vamp.

Given the movie's nontraditional elements, it's difficult to know where to begin. The beginning, I suppose, is Craig Schwartz, a frustrated puppeteer played by John Cusack at his most plaintive and whiny. To hear him is to wish to strangle him.

Craig is a genius in a world that no longer appreciates genius; his marionettes can somersault, kung fu fight and dance ballet, but his one-man show of "Heloise and Abelard" fails to ignite anything except a punch in the nose from an enraged viewer.

Meanwhile, on the home front, his wife, Lotte (Diaz), is trying to nurse her pet chimp through a psychic trauma and isn't paying much attention to Craig. So Craig, with his fast, deft hands, gets a job as a filer in a speed-file company between the seventh and eighth floors of a famed New York building.

Ladies and gentlemen, pay no attention to the four-foot ceilings (low overhead, as the movie explains many times) and turn your attention instead to Maxine (Keener), she of the slinky leg and the gimlet eye, who knows that what's best for her is simply what's best. Then follow as Craig flails and fails with Maxine and ultimately invites her home for dinner, where Lotte's loins are similarly excited by the presence of the haughty, uninterested Maxine. Next, enter John Malkovich.

I mean that literally: Enter him. And how would you do this? Surgery? Telepathy? Fiber optics? Vulcan mind-meld? No, indeed. Just look behind the filing cabinet. There's a little door. Go through that door. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

According to Charlie Kaufman's hopelessly demented script, we're inside the Malkovich head for our 15 minutes of Malkofame. And the movie even thinks to answer the ultimate question: What would happen if John Malkovich would go through the little door?

God bless John Malkovich. Clearly aware of his status at the center of a cult that worships a demeanor of such icy languor, such sang-froid disconnect from the pains of the world, such utter contempt for the icky, greasy squalor of the quotidian, he wins the Congressional Medal of Good Sportsmanship for A.) Getting It, and B.) Going With It. And it allows me to write the following sentence, which I never thought I'd be able to write in a thousand years: "As John Malkovich, John Malkovich is brilliant."

This may be the first time in history that a man wins an Oscar for playing himself, with the exception of John Wayne in "True Grit." Even when Craig, with his tiny-mouthed little voice, takes Malkovich over and bumps him through a career change into puppeteer, Malkovich plays his stolen, blasphemed self with the stoic intensity of a Spartan warrior who refuses to give in even as the little rat eats his guts.

The plot is yet more complicated. It seems that, after making a few paltry grand on the be-John-for-15 scam, Maxine comes up with some kinky other turns. She will have sex with Craig or Lotte but only through the vessel of poor Malkovich, who cannot figure out what is going on inside him or who these strange people are and how they got so far into his life.

Meanwhile, Craig has determined that if he becomes Malkovich full time, he will enjoy the show-biz fame and power that the actual actor has accrued--without having to do any work. The scene where he (as John Malkovich) instructs his agent that from now on he'll be a puppeteer instead of an actor, and the agent takes notes and then says "Poof! You're a puppeteer," is a classic. And then there's Orson Bean playing a strange old man who has an even more nefarious objective in mind for highjacking Spaceship Malkovich.

While it's busting your ribs with body shots, the movie makes a number of points you may not notice. It's a meditation on the blasphemy of a celebrity-driven culture that encourages the powerless to live vicariously through the pleasures of the powerful. It's a disquisition on the morphic resonances of the marionette. It's an exploration of the sexual potency of role-playing. It's an ultimately depressing expression of the notion of the artist living for other people and then being discarded by them.

To be John Malkovich or not to be John Malkovich; that is not the question. The question is: How long is the line, and can I get tickets for the midnight show?

Being John Malkovich (112 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7, Dupont Circle 5 and Avalon) is rated R for obscenity, nudity and sexual scenes.

CAPTION: Actor John Malkovich's brain becomes a tourist destination in Spike Jonze's hiply bizarre film.

CAPTION: John Cusack plays a puppeteer who sells a 15-minute trip inside an actor's head in "Being John Malkovich."