Adaptation Movie Review

Wrap your noodle around this one. Real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Human Nature) writes a screenplay about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) writing a screenplay adaptation of a real-life book, The Orchid Thief, written by real-life author Susan Orlean (played in Adaptation by Meryl Streep).

Thus spake Adaptation. Starting out with fake (or real?) behind-the-scenes footage of Malkovich, taking detours to the dawn of life on earth and story mogul Robert McKee's screenwriting class, Darwin's lab, Orlean's book (with Chris Cooper playing the swamp rat/scientist/orchid thief himself), voice-overs, and flashbacks, Adaptation finds inventive convolutions that might make it seem more esoteric than it really is.

Reading over these sentences in my review (without making a meta-review about a meta-movie--enough already!), the mind boggles and scrapes along a circuitous route, Memento-style. But boiled down to its most simple essence, Adaptation is about the perils and needs for an artist to create--as well as the requirement for mutability as a Hollywood player, a lover, a writer, a human being. Kaufman could have called this one Human Nature, too -- or A Phantasmagoria of Human Nature.

A Rubik's Cube for story lovers, Adaptation is blessed with an extraordinary cast. You've got to thank heaven for small favors like this line-up, playing their oddball rolls refreshingly free of over-the-top quirkiness. Director Spike Jonze has a talent for tapping into the most interesting, humanistic qualities of people like John Malkovich and Christopher Walken (in the amazing "Weapon of Choice" music video). If Nicolas Cage doesn't quite redeem his lousy career over the past ten years, at least he gives a full performance as Charlie Kaufman -- fat, bald, whiny, intelligent, and insecure... an unlikely but wholly unique protagonist.

Cage also plays Charlie's twin brother Donald (the only fictional character here, despite his screenwriter credit), a jocular and uncomplicated (i.e., dopey) sibling who's working on his own script. It's a kind of conventional studio thriller called The 3 about an interconnected cop and killer. He sells it for six figures, but his sell-out venture actually seems closer to the heart of Adaptation than Charlie Kaufman's script-within-the-script for The Orchid Thief, a "movie about flowers and what they mean"). Both Cages play off each other well, which implies that instead of chewing up all the scenery he just chews on his own tics (and negates them, maybe). It actually helps.

Meryl Steep, so excellent in comedies, brings an intelligent everywoman's charm to Susan Orlean. The who's who of other character actors are working at the top of their game: Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston (Office Space), and especially Brian Cox as the blustering, tough-lovin', fighting-mad story mentor Bob McKee: "God help you if you use voice-over in a script, my friend!"

But reverence for the cast only steers us away from what Adaptation is really about: It's levels of screen and story reality. Jonze appropriately keeps his direction plain and unfettered. He doesn't show off with camera tricks like Michel Gondry did in Human Nature, and that's a smart move. Adaptation's plotting is so bizarre, Jonze doesn't need to accentuate that. This one lives or dies based on the story -- especially considering how much the characters argue over storytelling as a device for living or avoiding a life.

It's a fascinating artist's journey into his own navel, well worth thinking about. But Adaptation isn't a movie you want to wrap your arms around (just your mind; refer back to the opening paragraph). Concentration stays on the mind and the backbone/structure. It doesn't have time for the heart or soul. The closest Adaptation gets is a carefully staged, self-conscious "conventional" climactic shoot-out and sentimental epiphany. The dramatic weeping scenes make the fake Charlie Kaufman's cold heart crack, but it also counts on a level of self-awareness that we're watching a fake "movie." Riddles can work this way, too. While it's fun to puzzle over them for days, it's difficult to say whether they are affecting. That's the question of Adaptation, too. The answer? Watch it again.

Talk to the pen.


Adaptation Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2002


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