Rated R - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 12/6/02

I suppose any movie written by Charlie Kaufman would be a writer’s movie—and therefore a critic’s movie. Kaufman, who penned Spike Jonze’s fabulously surreal 1999 film Being John Malkovich and followed it up with 2001’s bizarre Human Nature and, more recently, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, has become known for his funny, impressionistic, and above all unconventional style of screenwriting, taking repeated risks to reveal his highly personal take on life and the inherent fantasy contained within it. But with Adaptation, his second project with director Jonze, a film ostensibly about writing a screenplay based on a book by another author, Kaufman goes even farther—by actually incorporating himself into the story.

This would not be so remarkable had it happened intentionally. But according to Kaufman, Jonze, and everyone else involved in the movie, it happened by accident. Originally intending to write a faithful adaptation of the best-selling non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Kaufman had such difficulty that the project itself became the story. Adaptation is not simply a film version of The Orchid Thief, it’s more the story of Kaufman trying to adapt The Orchid Thief. Therefore, Kaufman and Orlean both become characters in the story (played by Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, respectively), even though neither of them is in Orlean’s book. But their mere presence isn't even the point: in attempting to make a film-friendly story out of a non-fiction work, Kaufman is forced to alter the events into his own invention. In the same way that Malkovich took a real actor and fabricated a wild and not entirely flattering picture of him, Adaptation spins a bizarre story about Orlean, her relationship with the subject of her book (an eccentric naturalist who collects rare wild flowers for conservation purposes, even though it’s illegal, played by Chris Cooper), and about her relationship with Kaufman himself. Again, it’s not a particularly flattering portrait of any of the above, but as long as we all understand it’s a fantasy, everyone seems to be okay with it.

At this point I should warn readers that this review contains spoilers, as it’s impossible to comment specifically on the film without revealing certain aspects of which some may prefer to remain ignorant until they see it. It starts with the insecure, overweight, balding Kaufman (Cage) obsessing about how inadequate he is for this job. Constantly reaffirming his desire, to himself as well as his movie producer (Tilda Swinton), to avoid the standard, hacky Hollywood conventions (romance, happy ending, lessons learned, etc.), he is righteously offended by the seemingly effortless progress of his annoying twin brother Donald (also Cage), who himself has decided to try screenwriting, and who is not encumbered by any such aversion to clichéd plot choices and derivative styles. Meanwhile, we witness the interviews, set in flashback, conducted by New Yorker journalist Orlean with the semi-toothless, unashamedly egotistical Florida orchid poacher John LaRoche (Cooper) as she researches his mission to make exotic orchids accessible to mankind by mass-breeding them, thus rendering them no longer endangered and making himself rich in the process. “That way, everybody wins—did you get that?” he asks her as they careen down the road, and she scribbles notes like “delusions of grandeur” and “funny smell in van.” The line between truth and fantasy is intentionally blurred over and over by writer Kaufman and director Jonze, including numerous fantasy scenes in which Charlie, while masturbating, has sex with nearly every woman in the film.

This movie bounces back and forth in time so much that we sometimes forget where we are in the grand scheme of things, including the Kaufman-Orlean meetings, the Orlean-LaRoche sessions, the time of Charles Darwin, behind the scenes at the filming of Malkovich (including uncredited cameos by John Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Malkovich), and even the formation of the Earth. It deals with Charlie’s issues about inadequacy, Orlean’s issues about her passionate lack of passion, and LaRoche’s issues about his childhood and the tragedy that took his teeth and put him where he is. It contains humor, sex, tragedy, romance, graphic violence...but somehow, somewhere, as Charlie’s writing style is inevitably influenced by his brother’s irritating success, it moves from a believable and semi-factual account of two writers involved in their respective processes into a dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) tale involving murder, drug abuse, and at least one character whose integral importance to the story is undiminished by the fact that he is, in fact, fictional. Even stranger, the producers succeeded, despite the famously strict rules of the Writers Guild of America, to secure an official co-writing credit for this fictional character (who incidentally has since been nominated for an Academy Award). Talk about life imitating art.

All these words and I still haven’t even mentioned the acting—a very important aspect, of course, since most of the characters are real people, some of whom wonder aloud who will play them in the movie. Cage, Streep, and Cooper have all proven themselves many times before, of course; still they amaze me. Cage is so ready to throw out his own sense of style to become Charlie, to appear dumpy, sweaty, with bad hair, physically ineffective and emotionally impotent, as writer Kaufman has so curiously and courageously written him(self). And his Donald, Charlie’s made-up alter-ego—perhaps representing Kaufman’s own occasional desire to take the easy route—although Donald is virtually indistinguishable from Charlie from a visual standpoint, Cage never has any trouble making it clear who is who. Similarly, Chris Cooper, sporting the unattractive oral hardware, brilliantly makes LaRoche attractive in spite of it, just by being so intense, so unapologetic, so viscerally connected in his own world. And then there’s Streep, whose character could arguably be the hardest one to play, a smart, successful professional woman longing, wishing for something about which to really care. While Cage’s character might sometimes wish he were invisible, Streep’s in a way really is, at least for the first two-thirds of the film. The fact that Orlean isn’t really like that is irrelevant; this version of her is Kaufman’s fantasy creation, remember?

This film would be a must-see only for the acting, but it has so much more. It is truly a wonder, a pile of self-contradictions, a series of wrongs that somehow make a right. *****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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