2002, R, 114 min. Directed by Spike Jonze. Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox, Cara Seymour, Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston, Jay Tavare.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 20, 2002
Adaptation. is a profound natural process by which living things unconsciously mutate over time in order to achieve greater concordance with their surroundings. Adaptation can also be a prosaic mechanical process though which a pre-existing thing is consciously remade in order to fulfill some other purpose – i.e., adapting a novel for the screen. It's with thoughts such as these that the movie Adaptation begins – and ends. In between, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman (the same team that gave us Being John Malkovich) poke through so many portals of inquiry that it's alone a sheer triumph that their film doesn't wind up lost down some porous black hole of the imagination. Instead, the movie incites cascades of synaptic firings that lead viewers toward new understandings, insights, and musings that are likely to reverberate long after the movie ends. All this from orchids? Susan Orlean's bestselling book The Orchid Thief provides the inspiration for Adaptation, whose screenplay was authored by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman (although it's doubtful Charlie's twin brother Donald actually exists -- the final screen credit dedicates the film to the loving memory of Donald). The solution of how to write a movie about orchids and obsessive passions is for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to write himself into the story. And not just himself, but also his twin brother Donald -- both of whom are played by Nicolas Cage in one of the most audacious yet controlled performances of the year and one that rescues Cage from the motley string of action-figure roles he's stamped out in years past. Donald is probably Charlie's alter ego, the shallow, pandering, popular hack to Charlie's joyless, hypercritical, masturbatory screenwriter. While Charlie struggles to write Adaptation, we watch Donald become the next big thing in Hollywood as his highly derivative serial-killer screenplay -- his first, written with the help of a bitterly satirized Robert McKee screenwriting workshop -- is sold for six figures. As described by Charlie, The Orchid Thief is one of those “sprawling New Yorker” pieces that's ostensibly about a renegade orchid poacher in the Everglades but is really about obsession and the search for a spark that will ignite such a fever in oneself. Charlie doesn't want to write standard-issue movies brimming with sex, guns, car chases, and characters who come to profound life decisions. He wants to be able to write a movie about flowers, although he finds it difficult to do so without telling the entire history of the universe. (A montage sequence early in the film actually manages to relate this multimillennial history in an awesome and amusing display of cinematic bravado.) Adaptation both succeeds and fails at its own game. The first two-thirds of the movie are an amazing writer's journey through the mutually linked paths of creation and self-doubt. In addition to Kaufman's hilarious and terrifyingly real voice-over monologues about his inability to render the book onto the screen, his attendant gloom, and his maddening conversations with his live-in brother, the film offers ancillary tidbits for contemplation and amusement at every turn. As the orchid thief, John Laroche, Chris Cooper turns in his meatiest characterization to date, and Meryl Streep, as the writer Susan Orlean, is as fantastic as ever. Then, by the third act, Kaufman adds in a secret love story, drugs, swamp chases, etc. – everything that any studio production chief would want to see in a script. The first thought is that Kaufman couldn't find a way to write himself out of his wacky story and therefore took the easy way out. Only later can his tactic be seen, perhaps, as a rebuke of his desire to completely renounce narrative conventions. Not only are conventions handy and reliable, they offer structure to a protagonist (such as Charlie Kaufman) who is inert in the extreme. Adaptation. is probably the ultimate writers' film, but it's also a brash, daring, and dynamic film – as delicate as an orchid but as durable and malleable as the species. (See p.52 in this week's Screens section for an interview with the filmmakers.)