Adaptation Movie Review

R114 min, 2002

Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Susan Orlean (book The Orchid Thief), Charlie Kaufman (screenplay) and Donald Kaufman (screenplay)

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. is as bewildering, magnificent, odd, funny and original as its predecessor. In what amounts to ultra-meta fiction, the film concerns screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage), the Oscar-nominated and much-beloved scribe behind Being John Malkovich (1999), which was Jonze’s feature debut.

He is (in his own words) “fat, bald, sweating profusely, pathetic, ugly” and is potentially to be hired by a studio executive (Tilda Swinton) to adapt a much-acclaimed book called The Orchid Thief, based on a New Yorker article by the book’s author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). The book, if it’s about anything at all, concerns the exploits of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a toothless Florida swamp-rat of a man who uses his friends, all Seminole Indians, to excavate and effectively abscond with many rare species of orchid from the bogs and backwoods of the Everglades. Susan, interviewing Laroche for first an article and then a book, falls for his insane charms.

Meanwhile, Charlie has a brother named Donald (also played by Cage), his much more confident, obnoxious and simple-minded id. He’s gearing up for a three-day screenwriting seminar from Robert McKee (Brian Cox), the notoriously difficult teacher of all things formula. Charlie is all-but-paralyzingly nervous, attempting quite futilely to flirt with a kind waitress (Judy Greer) and his studio boss (Swinton), as well as developing a fantasy for Susan Orlean. Donald, on the other hand, is suave but a dope, gaining the adoration of a makeup artist (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who worked on Being John Malkovich.

While Charlie struggles with adapting a book into a movie “simply about flowers,” Donald breezes through his own script, The 3, a convoluted cheat of an exploitation thriller about a serial killer who has multiple personalities – he is also his own victim, as well as the detective who is hunting him and falling for the victim from her photos. Charlie, meanwhile, likewise falls for Susan without even meeting her – until he decides he must.

So you see, ’round and ’round it goes. The metaphor of an “ouroborous,” a snake eating its own tail, is an apt one – this film is like that, coiling around and around, then folding back on itself like a mobius strip. The plot is merely the surface, with layers upon layers underneath. The twist is that this film has been written by Charlie Kaufman (his faux brother Donald is, in fact, a credited co-author), and that makes this perhaps one of the most complicated and brilliantly honest portrayals of the process of screenwriting ever made – the story of this film is the story of the writing of the film itself, and the film itself is a record of its own writing, and so on.

Cage gives a tour-de-force performance in a dual role as both Charlie and Donald, but it’s not a stunt – he makes both characters destinct and real, despite their physical similarities. Streep plays Orlean as a bored New York intellectual (married to Curtis Hanson, who directed Streep in The River Wild before moving on to L.A. ConfidentialWonder Boys and 8 Mile) who should be repulsed by Laroche, an all-but-toothless simpleton who thinks he should play himself in the movie version of his own story (Kaufman might approve), but she is instead drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Cooper plays Laroche exactly as I’ve previously described him, with a penchant for making internet pornography on the side (“they pay top dollar for ‘em”).

All of these characters and their fates weave and warp under the film’s surface for most of its duration, and then Kaufman springs an audacious and, the more you think about it, brilliant surprise that ties everything together hilariously. The cinematography by Lance Acord is suitably slick but low-key, and Carter Burwell’s music is there, never underlining until that’s required, always observing in perfect anonymity. Jonze and Kaufman prove here that Being John Malkovich was no fluke and that they are talents to be reckoned with, capable of work far deeper than it at first appears. This is one of the year’s best films.


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Filed under 2002

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