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Adaptation. (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 12, 2020




Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Jay Tavare, G. Paul Davis, Cara Seymour, Stephen Tobolowsky, Gary Farmer, Curtis Hanson, David O. Russell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Judy Greer, Ron Livingston, Brian Cox, Catherine Keener, John Cusack and John Malkovich.

Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman.

Directed by Spike Jonze.

Distributed by Columbia  Pictures.  114  minutes.  Rated R.

The mind of Charlie Kaufman is not a pretty place to be.  He is probably best known as the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, a film that was about a portal literally into actor John Malcovich’s brain.  Adaptation., his follow-up project (again with BJM director Spike Jonze) has no literal portal, but it is still essentially a view into Kaufman’s mind.

Nicholas Cage plays a chronically insecure screenwriter not coincidentally named Charlie Kaufman, who after breaking through by writing the screenplay for a film called Being John Malkovich is given the job of writing a film version of a book by a writer for The New Yorker named Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep).  The book, The Orchid Thief, is a lovely but completely uncinematic work about a toothless redneck (Chris Cooper) who is also a renowned horticulturist who is obsessed with a rare flower called the Ghost Orchid.

All of this has a woozy fascinating symmetry because the characters and the situations are all true.  Kaufman’s fitful stops and starts and the self-loathing that the project and his life inspire in him is funny for general audiences and at the same time squirm-inducingly realistic to people who have ever had the experience.  Cage also plays Charlie’s twin brother Donald… who, in the film’s first blatant retreat from real life… is a totally made-up character.  (It is a show of this film’s skewed worldview that although Donald Kaufman is fictional, he still gets a co-screenwriting credit.)

Even though they look exactly alike, the two brothers couldn’t be more different.  Charlie is a jangled bundle of nerves and neuroses who constantly belittles himself for being fat, bald and talentless.  Donald is comfortable with his looks, can relate to people, and decides to get into screenwriting as a whim, in the process grinding out an incoherent serial killer melodrama that despite a total lack of artistic merit sets off a bidding war in Hollywood.  It’s almost like Donald is the Mozart to Charlie’s Salieri, except in this twisted view it is the talented artist who envies the hack.

Cage does a spectacular job of fleshing out two polarly different characters, giving them completely separate lives.  As Charlie fails obsessively to make the characters of The Orchid Thief into an articulate screen force he inserts himself and his problems into the script until he finally crosses paths with his protagonists… both on the page and in real life.

And this is where the whimsy starts to unravel.  In the last thirty minutes, the film veers off its course to become like something from one of Donald’s scripts.  I assume (or at least, I hope) that this jump is supposed to be Kaufman and Jonze’s satire on the formulaic Hollywood moviemaking process – but it flies in the face of all we’ve seen before… what’s the point in investing yourself in four of the most original characters in recent celluloid history if they are going to become somewhat clichéd ciphers in the end?  The ending doesn’t undo all the good that has come before it, though.  Even with the flawed ending, the movie is the most fascinating, imaginative post-modern mind-game likely to make it into the multiplexes until Kaufman and Jonze work together again.  (12/02)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.  Posted: February 2, 2003.

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