Adaptation Movie Review
Poking around in the mind of John Malkovich was a wonderfully weird, wildly conceptual experience in 1999's "Being John Malkovich," but the ingenious "Adaptation" is a testament to the fact that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's head is an even more peculiar place.
Kaufman is the off-kilter mastermind behind both films, and while the former was a dark, cerebellum-warping, fictional funhouse ride, the latter began life simply as a commission to adapt Susan Orleans' novel "The Orchid Thief." What the project morphed into, however, is something far more bizarre because Kaufman's unbridled and bewildered efforts to turn the book into a movie began bleeding into the screenplay itself.
In the deft and innovative hands of "Malkovich" director Spike Jonze, three cross-pollinating narratives are stitched together in an extraordinary patchwork of idiosyncratic storytelling: First, the film follows the plot of "The Orchid Thief," which is, in part, about the misfiring conservation philosophies of a real Florida flower poacher named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who took Orleans (Meryl Streep) into the Everglades on excursions to steal protected orchids that he then breeds to sell in his flower shop.
Orleans' uncomfortable working friendship with Laroche also becomes a part of the movie -- and so does Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), whose collision with a creative brick wall led him to follow Orleans in an attempt to better understand her story, writing both himself and the author into the script as a result.
Opening with an internal dialogue that is both disconcerting and hilariously ironic, Cage pines nervously over a blank typewriter page, establishing the fidgety footing for his dexterously goosey performance as the pudgy, balding, madly insecure geek that Kaufman imagines himself to be.
"Do I have an original thought in my head?" Cage's Charlie berates himself mentally. "In my bald head?" he thinks, adding insult to self-deprecating injury. "Maybe if I was happier, I wouldn't be losing my hair. If my ass wasn't so fat, I'd be happier, and I wouldn't have to wear my shirt tails out all the time," he adds, laying the groundwork for an amusingly anxious stream-of-consciousness voice-over that accompanies much of the picture.
With the frumpy, wrinkled T-shirt, got-out-of-bed-at-2-p.m. look of a guy depressed over months of unemployment, Charlie writes at a typewriter that's perched on a dining room chair propped under a window in his nearly-bare house. But battling writer's block, he soon becomes obsessed with getting inside Orleans' mindset and flies to New York to stalk her, finding mostly his own paranoid-neurotic frustration instead of answers.
Charlie fantasizes about her creative process and even invents for his screenplay an unlikely romance between the erudite Manhattanite and Laroche, a dirty-fingernails and missing-teeth plebeian who fancies himself a deep thinker -- which he may well be underneath a couple hundred pounds of grimy, churlish, crude psychological baggage.
Both Streep and Cooper nimbly navigate the many gossamer layers of Kaufman's creation, building authentic, affecting characters while always providing subtle, esoteric reminders that these versions of Orleans and Laroche are figments of Charlie's poetic license.
But beating at the heart of "Adaptation" is a struggle between Charlie and his own alter-ego in the guise of Donald, his vulgar, crass, freeloading nitwit of a fictional twin brother (also played by Cage). Donald came to L.A. to crash on Charlie's couch and now fancies himself a screenwriter because he blew $500 on a seminar that teaches templates for cranking out formulaic Hollywood garbage.
Of course, it doesn't help Charlie's self-esteem that Donald's slapped-together, asinine script (a serial-killer-taunting-cop story with a ludicrous twist ending) is written and sold in a matter of weeks (begetting everything Hollywood affords those who produce crap for the masses, including a perky young girlfriend) while Charlie drives himself crazy over the exhausting complexities of "Adaptation."
It would be difficult to determine where Kaufman's real-life devotion to "The Orchid Thief" ends and his fiction begins -- not that you'd really want to. But eventually the film takes a clear and capricious turn for the absurd when Donald's insipid commercial sense seeps into Charlie's writing, turning the last act of "Adaptation" into a subversively sly spoof of middle-brow psychological thrillers, in which Charlie is forced to run for his life.
The unique niche of self-critical, behind-the-scenes navel-gazing Kaufman has carved from Orleans' story and his own infinite insecurity is a work of outstanding originality. Brilliantly brought to life by Cage's veritable performance and by Jonze's lucid, accessible but cutting-edge direction, it is without question the freshest, strangest, most outlandishly creative film of 2002.