Adaptation

December, 2002, Comedy

Directed by:Spike Jonze

Starring:Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Cara Seymour, and Brian Cox

Director Spike Jonze came to widespread attention a couple of years ago with the bewildering, funny and astonishingly inventive Being John Malkovich.  By turns charming, clever and slightly sinister, Malkovich allowed Jonze (aka Adam Spiegel, a 33 year old veteran of commercials and rock videos) and his writer Charlie Kaufman to fashion a surreal world with the kind of deadpan nonchalance that appealed especially to young, well educated audiences. Facetiously joined in this film by Kaufman's brother Donald as co-screenwriter and opening the action with a direct reference to their earlier work, Jonze and the Kaufmans take us on another trip through fantasyland, once again demonstrating their ability to bend the real world to do the bidding of their fantastical one. Adaptation proves Malkovich was no flash in the pan.

Here, the real-life Charlie Kaufman, (played by Nicholas Cage, who also doubles as twin brother Donald) is trying to write a screenplay based on the novel "The Orchid Thief". Unable to get a proper handle on how to treat the material, Kaufman begins a descent into writer's hell. He unexpectedly begins writing himself into the script; we're soon jumping forward and backward in time as the increasingly desperate Kaufman tries to find a way into his assignment by concentrating first on John Laroche, (played by a slyly hilarious Chris Cooper) whose exploits form the basis of the New Yorker-profile-turned-into-novel Kaufman has been hired to adapt. Cooper's Laroche comes straight from the pages of a Flannery O'Connor short story; intelligent, crude and defiantly unsophisticated, he barrels through life with an obsessive commitment to the most arcane interests, one of which is a unique type of orchid found only in the Florida Everglades. Lacking front teeth but not chutzpah, Laroche fascinates Meryl Streep, the urban sophisticate who tracks Laroche down to chronicle his obsessive, (and illegal) hunt for this rarest of flowers. 

Desperate with writer's block, Kaufman finds authoress Streep increasingly attractive as both touchstone for the script and object of his sexual fantasies. Streep and Cooper begin to vie for Kaufman's attention even as his own love life goes into cardiac arrest and his loopy twin, (and unwanted roommate) successfully completes a hackneyed but commercially hot script, written under the tutelage of a fabulously successful Joe Eszterhaus-like screenwriter. 

Charlie, now jealous of his brother's success and besotted from afar with Streep, decides he must meet her in order to find a way into the meaning of her work, (if not her heart) and finish the screenplay. He and Donald go to New York, then tail Streep to a rendezvous with Laroche in Miami, where the droll and menacing climax shows Charlie how to find the way out of the labyrinth his mind has become. Charlie may not succeed, but he at least survives to write another day.

Is this really what occurred when Charlie actually suffered the breakdown that took place when he was hired to do the real screenplay of this very real book? In Jonze's hands, it doesn't matter; "Adaptation" is a riff on the creative mind gone destructively frenetic, and it's quite impressive to see the director spin this gossamer idea of a plot into a movie with surprising narrative clarity and such consistently original, amusing characters. 

Jonze's originality notwithstanding, Cage's bright, articulate but insecure Charlie is really a stand-in for the persona Woody Allen's been serving up for decades. Sexually repressed and often feral, this schlemiel-as-hero may be far more appealing to those who didn't grow up on Allen's original articulation of this character in his films of the 60's and 70's. Allen's ego has worn our patience with this guy pretty thin, and Cage's whiney, self-absorbed Charlie grates more frequently than he amuses.

Finally, Adaptation is the Hollywood version of Beltway politics; the conceit of the movie presupposes both a large grasp of the movie-making business and the underlying notion that it's vitally important. Jonze and the "brothers" Kaufman may have turned out yet another terribly clever flick, but it doesn't say anything as profound as the creators obviously intended nor is it as emotionally satisfying as the audience would like it to be. Hip and Vanity Fair smart, Adaptation finally grows too smug and self-satisfied to be completely successful. But Cooper's John Laroche will surely be considered a contender in the Best Supporting Actor category come Oscar time. 

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