Friday, January 10, 2003

Adaptation. / ***1/2 (2002)

"Adaptation" is a film about the making of "Adaptation." Confused? Of course you are. But fear not, as this is exactly the kind of response that the movie expects you to have, if only for the first few minutes that it is on screen. It's about Charlie Kaufman, the writer of this movie and "Being John Malkovich," as he struggles to adapt a novel called "The Wild Orchid" into a screenplay (which is where this movie, the opening credits indicate, is adapted from). Failing miserably in his initial goal, he decides to shift the focus of his opus onto his own writing dilemma, putting himself into the story of "Adaptation" so that the literal result is the audience experiencing him during the writing of his own script. Get it?

If you're still having trouble holding onto some sense behind this description, maybe it's best just to stop reading now; slow minds, after all, will be left out in the cold early on in this offbeat endeavor, which examines the frustration and anxiety of the writing process on an intricate level, and then magnifies it over the "movie within a movie" scenario. I don't mean to imply that readers could be slow-minded, but in the business of people like Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, certain logistics have to be immediately abandoned, otherwise no one has a chance of being truly engaged in the intended experience. Movies like these don't operate on single planes of reality, nor do they even find ground between fact and absurdity. Here, nothing is sacred and everything is conceivable; you just simply have to accept it before you find yourself diving headfirst into the hordes of eccentricities.

Perhaps I'm being a little too vague in my opening statements, though. So let's just get straight to the point without beating around another bush: "Adaptation" is a fabulous, daring, intelligent and wild experience, electric down to the finest details and polished by its own shrewd sense of comic intensity. It stars Nicolas Cage in not one but two roles: Charlie Kaufman (the movie's writer, keep in mind), and his twin brother Donald, who share a roof and aspire for greatness in the writing world, but couldn't be any farther apart in terms of creative inspiration. Donald, the more upstanding and flamboyant brother, can reach a satisfying level of success and acceptance without trying too hard, but Charlie, the shy, insecure and more reserved sibling, doesn't strive to do things that are normally embraced. In fact, he makes it a deliberate point of being the underdog, and when he is pitched a new idea to be adapted from a novel during the final stages of production for "Being John Malkovich," his mind is instantly tantalized with prospects of a story about no specific characters or plot lines.

The book in question, "The Orchid Thief," is the literary baby of New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (played on-screen by the regal Meryl Streep), who, in several large flashbacks throughout the movie is seen writing, preparing, interviewing and even contemplating a theme for her first major novel, a retelling of the Florida-based court case against John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who often used tricky legal loopholes to collect and widely distribute rare and precious orchids. It's not as if Susan doesn't have enough information to satisfy the needs of her publishers; she simply finds herself too emotionally attached to the situation and its players to look at the material objectively. Her result, more or less, doesn't turn out to be directly about Laroche or his case, but about the Orchids themselves.

Needless to say, Kaufman's offbeat mind is instantly attracted to the concept of adapting a book without the conventional story elements. "I'll write a movie about flowers," he mutters in his head over and over, sitting down at his desk to crank out pages and pages of beautiful nothingness. Thoughts race through his head—some of them unrelated to anything else—a mile a minute, and the audience is privileged to hear them all. But the most important of the revelations is the most obvious one; in the end, as it turns out, it's nearly impossible to make a movie simply about flowers without it including the essential traits of a successful cinematic product. As a screenwriting instructor points out so well later on in the picture, "without purpose, you'll put your viewers to sleep."

Where the film goes from here is too delicious to reveal, but this much can be said: Kaufman's multi-layered work revolved around himself, his close friends, and all the trials and tribulations of a writer's thought process, balances itself rather well for the near-two-hour running time, seldom falling off course or inflicting damage on the payoff when the movie makes its essential—if rather unexpected—shifts between Charlie and Susan's character arcs. If the film has one fault, alas, it's that the director, Spike Jonze (who also did "Being John Malkovich"), doesn't seem to be as in tune with the material as Kaufman is. The writing is close to flawless, but the movie's pace is kind of thin in small patches, which can numb the film's zealous sting on certain brief occasions.

As for the movie being any accurate reflection of what Kaufman actually went through during his own writing process, I doubt this is an exact recreation. But in case you don't realize it by now, that's not the point of "Adaptation," nor is it even a barely hinted fundamental. This is a movie about familiar messages being bundled with entirely unorthodox exteriors, a picture revolved around Hollywood with very anti-Hollywood goals in mind. That may sound too much like an oxymoron for some of us, to say the least, but no one ever said the process towards more originality would be entirely plausible.

Kaufman is a genius trapped in a world that is far too slow-paced to truly embrace the modern complexity of his ideas. But he helps the progression along, thankfully, by propelling his own psyche into the limelight instead of just tossing out scripts while standing on the sidelines. Few screenwriters of our time can drag their audiences into their own warped thoughts, and when they do, very seldom do they offer such a curiously coherent payoff in the process. This is a man who has mastered that possibility very quickly, and when the product is seen through an equally-bizarre yet ambitious eye like Spike Jonze's, what you get is a genius and endlessly entertaining vehicle like "Adaptation." Stuff like this is the reason why I go to the cinema.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Nicolas Cage: Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman
Meryl Streep: Susan Orlean/Orlean's Mother
Chris Cooper: John Laroche
Cara Seymour: Amelia
Rheagan Wallace: Kim Canetti

Produced by Jonathan Demme, Charlie Kaufman, Vincent Landay, Peter Saraf, Edward Saxon; Directed by Spike Jonze; Screenwritten by Charlie and Donal Kaufman; based on the novel "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean

Comedy (US); Rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images; Running Time - 114 Minutes

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