Adaptation review

:. Director: Spike Jonze
:. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep
:. Running Time: 2:05
:. Year: 2002
:. Country: USA


After exploring the complex mind of an actor, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze reveal what's like being Charlie Kaufman in the brilliant Adaptation. The film shows the struggle of a screenwriter caught between the dilemma of making art and selling out.

Nicolas Cage interprets Charlie Kaufman as a loser, a smart social freak under the strain of adapting Susan Orlean's bestseller The Orchid Thief and who ends up writing himself in the script as a last resort. Cage is also Donald, Charlie's fictional twin, a more seductive but foolish alter ego, who follows Hollywood's most famous script coach Robert McKee (Brian Cox) and ends up writing a successful third-rate thriller—curiously, as they mention his film, a Silence of the Lambs rip-off, I couldn't help thinking about Brett Ratner's Red Dragon!

In a fun mise-en-abime, Kaufman offers an infinite reflection through multiple mirrors, intertwining the making of Adaptation, The Orchid Thief and Being John Malkovich with real events, like Russian matreshka dolls.

The presence of the twin brothers, in addition to referring to McKee's theory about Casablanca (its supposedly perfect script was written by twins), symbolizes the dichotomy of screenwriters in Hollywood—at least the ones who want to write great scripts but are lured by idiotic commercial flames in order to survive. Thus, the title of the film not only refers to orchids but also to screenwriters.

Adaptation gives another look at Hollywood behind-the-scenes. While the film rather focuses on its creative aspect rather than going for another satire of showbiz and industry sharks, it's more efficient than Soderbergh's recent Full Frontal because it's much smarter. Still, Kaufman pokes fun at himself (his self-portrait is unflattering), bad screenwriters, McKee, agents and New York elitists. Paradoxically, the funniest and most primitive character, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), is probably the smartest. Self-derision is omnipresent here and it's a treat to see John Malkovich as a prima donna as well as John Cusack and Catherine Keener snubbing that poor Kaufman during the shooting of Being John Malkovich.

However, toward the end there is one abrupt change in tone. The film swings over to what the Kaufman character denounced at the beginning and what he didn't want to do while adapting The Orchid Thief: create a love story, and climax with murder and car chases. At that very moment, Kaufman and Jonze sell out. The part of the audience composed of their fans will be stunned or laugh with uneasiness. The others will finally be captivated—this is when my neighbor said "Oh my god" and her boyfriend woke up after 90 minutes of snoring.

Kaufman sabotages his own film on purpose, directly addressing the spectators who follow him and deceiving the others. This is when you should distance yourself from the screen, get back and watch the rest of the audience: Kaufman shows how easy it is to lure the audience with a couple of cheap screenwriting tricks (or twists). The process used in his demonstration on selling out is dangerous since he loses a part of his unsuspecting audience and makes a few minutes of his film unwatchable because of its embarrassing clichés; this is actually when Donald took over the script.

To emphasize the demonstration on selling out, the main character is played by Cage, an actor who embodies this notion after his transition from cool independent films to atrocities such as Family Man, Gone in 60 Seconds and Con Air. Following his rehabilitation in the underestimated Windtalkers, Cage gives an impressive performance as Charlie the loser and Donald the fool; a comeback reminiscent of Travolta's, also as a loser in Pulp Fiction. Though Meryl Streep (Susan Orlean) finely approaches her role with several layers, she is overshadowed by Chris Cooper, hilarious as a not-so-dumb redneck. The Kaufman/Jonze pair works perfectly, Jonze translating the weirdness and intelligence of Kaufman's screenplay on the screen.

At the end, Charlie Kaufman finally overcomes his anguish and finds inspiration. It's good news because we need more of his films.

  Fred Thom

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