Now it’s clear—clearer than even Being John Malkovich (1999) left the matter: Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant comedy writer. Adaptation, another collaboration with director Spike Jonze (pronounced Jones), is curious, audacious and on the mark. It’s all about, on several different levels, adaptation.
The premise of the plot is dizzyingly complicated. Being John Malkovich having given him currency in Hollywood, Kaufman is adapting for the screen Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, as actual a book as Kaufman and Orlean are actual persons, as indeed is John Laroche, the fancier of orchids to whom Orlean’s title refers. (Orlean is a writer for the New Yorker.) A work of nonfiction without, therefore, a plot of its own, The Orchid Thief proves massively difficult for Kaufman to adapt into a fictional screenplay. Contributing further to the problem are Kaufman’s all-round unhappiness and defeatism, his ongoing (interior) battle with Hollywood commercialism and compromise, and the presence in his home of his identical twin brother, Donald, who enthusiastically takes up screenwriting as something to do and ends up having a much easier time writing his (moronic) script than Charlie is having writing his. Adaptation credits both Charlie and Donald Kaufman with writing the film’s script, but Donald, however “real” he may be in the film, doesn’t actually exist. In any case, Donald is as cheerfully shallow as Charlie is endlessly worried about measuring up and doing the right thing.
Donald has a mentor, Robert McKee, at whose screenwriting seminars he develops a quasi-religious faith in the sort of formulaic Hollywood writing that’s anathema to his brother. Under McKee’s tutelage, Donald, a first-time writer, will come up with a million-dollar (though hackneyed) script, prompting an act of desperation on the part of mind-blocked Charlie, who demeans himself by attending one of the seminars, where the commercial guru publicly humiliates him. By no means is this the only cause of the script that Charlie ends up with—an “adaptation” that submits to every sort of commercial vileness that, at the outset, Kaufman had been determined to avoid. No other American film that I’ve seen better dissects the matrix of pressures, from without and within, that leads intelligent writers to come up with the kind of crap that acts as the springboards for Hollywood’s current and recent crop of compromised and corrupt “entertainments.”
The tack of the film is this: As Charlie suffers throughout the ordeal of piecing together an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, we “see” the script that’s taking shape, a projection, as it were, of the actual eventual film, the one we’re watching—only, the confusion between fiction and non- that this engenders wildly results, too, in a “real” adventure involving the Kaufman brothers, Orlean and Laroche that corresponds to nothing in actuality, and instead teases the latter two out of their reality as human beings into murderous figures in a farfetched melodrama: precisely the sort of thing that Hollywood loves to make out of “real-life” persons and events. The adventure costs Charlie a brother (a fool who, incidentally, as he expires from gunshot discloses belatedly wisdom and intelligence), but it ensures him a second Oscar nomination. This is withering satire at the expense of Hollywood—but also, implicitly, at the expense of the audience to which, in the creation of its lousy movies, Hollywood at least believes that it’s meticulously responding.
For protection against lawsuits, films and television programs used to bear a disclaimer insisting on the fictional nature of both the characters and events that they portray. Lately, however, these shows instead boast that they are based on real people, real events. Almost always, though, what appears on the movie or TV screen, despite this claim, is so unreal and farfetched, so contrived and melodramatic, that an intelligent viewer instinctively knows that the fiction has only the slightest toehold in truth. Kaufman has a high time in Adaptation ridiculing the factual claims of these erstwhile entertainments; and because he and Jonze, rather than resting on the ridicule, frame their satire in a consideration of more momentous forms of “adaptation” than Hollywood’s adaptation of reality to their business motives and interests, the film develops a tragic undertow. One of these other forms of adaptation involves the evolutionary history of species of orchids; another, the evolutionary history of man. To be sure, this seems to take away as much as it gives, as though Kaufman finds himself as much seduced by the compromises that his industry dictates as opposed to them; but this also accounts for the film’s surprising heartache in the midst of its hilarity. Life in America (and, surely, not only in America), it seems, requires each of us constantly to adapt our ideals and morals to a series of compelling realities.
Geography underscores the film’s concern with evolution. There are three principal locations: Orlean’s New York City, an apotheosis of civilization; Kaufman’s L.A./Hollywood, an apotheosis of corruption and compromise; and Laroche’s rural Florida, with its proverbial primordial swamp, where civilized people become barbaric hunters and the hunted, and monsters—I confess: I don’t know an alligator from a crocodile—menacingly lurk about, evoking a prehistoric world. Indeed, part of the film’s weird, dark fun is to see Kaufman—well, both Kaufmans—and Orlean functioning in ways so unlike their own in the midst of this swamp.
Adaptation is a wonderful film, playful, sharp and inventive; Kaufman’s shyness with women perhaps encapsulates the film’s warmth and tenderness, helping to move it in an optimistic direction. But it’s by no means a perfect piece of work. Jonze’s filmmaking doesn’t match the caliber of Kaufman’s script. Moreover, the actor who plays the Kaufman brothers doesn’t strike me as being up to the task. Nicolas Cage is an actor of very limited resources, and I’m afraid that, in addition to distinguishing one brother from another in a blatant and uninteresting fashion, he drowns much of his Charlie in a swamp of mawkishness. (He should have found a way of dryly cutting against the self-uncertain stream-of-consciousness with which the character is aptly provided.) This is particularly unfortunate, for Cage’s dedication to the tricky double part is unmistakable, and Cage largely succeeds in implying the possibility that one Kaufman is the fiction of the other Kaufman. On balance, some other actor—perhaps a colder actor, like Vincent D’Onofrio—might have taken less away from the film.
Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep, on the other hand, are to die for as Laroche and Orlean. These parts are gloriously played. Irascible, sneaky, anarchic, borderline demented and—I must say it—swampy, this unflattering but utterly fascinating portrait of Laroche brought Cooper an Oscar at last. Indeed, this marvelous actor also took home best supporting actor prizes from many other quarters, including the National Board of Review and the critics’ groups in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Kansas City, Vancouver, Dallas-Fort Worth and Toronto. (The last also named Cage best actor.) The Southeastern Film Critics Association, which named Cooper best supporting actor, likewise named Streep best supporting actress, and the pair also won Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Streep is delicious throughout, although the phone scene where Orlean mimics a dial tone is one high point, and a voiced decision on Orlean’s part involving Kaufman’s fate (it’s Donald, but Orlean thinks it’s Charlie) is another. (When Orlean met Streep for the first time, at a screening of the film, in fact, she said to Streep, quite in the spirit of Adaptation, I would say, “I wish I were Susan Orlean.”) This is Streep’s best work since Fred Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark (1988). The critics’ group in Chicago named her best supporting actress, as did the Florida Film Critics Circle, which, appropriately enough (given the film’s Florida connection), also named the film the year’s best, Kaufman best scenarist, and Cooper best supporting actor.
Adaptation won Jonze a Silver Bear at Berlin and the best film prize of the Toronto critics, and Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin won prizes for their [sic] screenplay from the British Academy, the National Board of Review, the Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the critics’ groups in New York, Boston, Toronto and Chicago.
Despite all these accolades, not everyone may like the film right off the bat. After all, the film is very odd. For some, warming up to it may take some adaptation.
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