Adaptation, the new metaphysical charmer from director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the team behind Being John Malkovich, raises self-consciousness to an art form. To simply watch it is to be implicated in its madness, to be thrown deliriously head first through its looking glass.
At a moment when Hollywood is more averse than ever to risk, when the recycled, financially solid idea is more important than stars, directors, or even talent, here is a movie so original that creative risk itself is both its subject and the thing itself. Adaptation is one giant stunt, a movie that tells a story in a new, brazenly exhilarating way, and forces you to wonder about how movies are made.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but one of the subtle jokes here is that a big studio, Columbia, made it, a studio that recently, ironically, was caught inventing film critics to blurb in movie ads. Ironic because Adaptation is partly an inspired blur of real life and fiction, a Hollywood daydream of sorts. Which sounds pretentious, I know. I'm reminded of a story Steven Soderbergh recounted in the Richard Linklater film Waking Life: Director Louis Malle told filmmaker Billy Wilder that he just spent $2.4 million on a movie. It's a dream within a dream, Malle said. “You just lost $2.4 million,” Wilder quipped back.
Funny. But one of the many triumphs of Adaptation is that Jonze and Kaufman are determinedly not old school, they want to throw a lot of head games at the wall and see what sticks. And yet they generously make sure to reward the audience for keeping up, not leaving us in the dark for too long or too far from a funny moment. They continually circle back to expand and explain their traffic jam of doodles. They make self-indulgence look affable.
Stay with me now: In Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. Yes, the same Charlie Kaufman who wrote Adaptation. He is the hero of the movie. When the film begins, the success of Malkovich has led to an offer to adapt The Orchid Thief, a book based on an article that journalist Susan Orlean wrote for The New Yorker magazine. When the film ends, he has adapted it, more or less, only not in the way you expect. Partly, the film becomes a parable about the trouble with being creative when creativity is not prized by the people paying you, or the audience paying them. And partly, it is about the paralysis that creativity can induce; if you've ever tried to write anything, you'll connect with Charlie's crippling realization that once he puts something to paper, the only person he has to blame is himself. There are other subjects, too:
There are ideas about art and orchid thieves and swamps and flowers and loss and journalism and screenwriting and cheesy Hollywood plot lines and finding a passion for something and, yes, adaptation. At one point Charles Darwin himself even makes a cameo, and rather than be surprised, you sort of wonder where he's been all this time. First we see Kaufman working on the script; then we jump back three years and see the reporting that led to the book, Orlean (Meryl Streep) interviewing a toothless orchid hunter (Chris Cooper) who has discovered a clever way to extract rare orchids from a Florida swamp preserve.
Then we leap forward again to Kaufman wrestling with the adaptation. One bravado sequence starts at the dawn of time: single-cell organisms turn into frogs, dinosaurs are pushed out by the Ice Age, mountains fall, and finally there's a shot of Cage's Kaufman, hairy, stoop-shouldered, desperate for an original idea. There are more tangents: a brief dip into the deadly history of orchid poaching, a discussion with a screenwriting guru who preaches formula over experimentation, a shoot-out, a chase through a swamp, car crashes.
That Jonze and Kaufman manage to tie it all together is something of a miracle.
That they can't make the film work on an emotional level is to be expected. That they come awfully close is another miracle. The movie is all fragments and dead ends and U-turns; indeed, exactly what Cage's Kaufman is coming up with. At one point he waves Orlean's book in the air and says there is no clear story. He seems to find adapting unnatural, and panics and decides to write a screenplay about a man named Charlie Kaufman having trouble writing a screenplay. He starts: “Fat, old, bald, repulsive, Charlie Kaufman ... ” Then, repulsed, he says: “I have no understanding of anything outside of my own panic and self-loathing. It's like the only thing I'm qualified to write about is myself.”
Enter Donald Kaufman (Cage, again), Charlie's slobbish twin who quickly writes a laughably formulaic screenplay that, of course, immediately sells. Donald is not only the film's ace in the hole, he's Cage's too. Streep lets her breezy self shine through for once; Cooper is touching and funny as a man who finds his purpose in life to be what his obsession is that week: flowers, fish, etc. But more impressive, and likely to be lost in the film's head trips, is Cage's portrayal of identical twins. Rather than play them wildly different, he creates two distinct people by merely altering how they slouch or stand or feel about stuff; so much so that after a couple of minutes the gimmick of one actor playing two people quietly evaporates and we truly think of Donald and Charlie as separate characters.
Normally you don't need to know anything about a film's production to enjoy it; you don't here, either. But it makes sense to know a bit: At times we watch events play out as they did for Orlean and Kaufman in real life. He had trouble adapting the book and wrote himself into the screenplay; she wrote The Orchid Thief and found herself wondering where her passion was. Some characters are real people playing themselves (John Cusack, Malkovich); some are real people played by actors (Laroche, Orlean, Kaufman); some are fiction (though credited as a co-writer, Donald does not exist - I think).
And sometimes Adaptation is a combination of fiction and fantasy. The last third, for example. Donald essentially hijacks the film, subtly steering the plot to his own hack instincts. You will either see it as a melodramatic sell-out to conventional Hollywood, or a satire of melodramatic sell-outs. I'm betting on the latter. Because like 90 percent of Hollywood endings, it doesn't work; but then maybe that is the greatest irony of all: Adaptation is a wonder of adaptation, a genetic mutation that finally can't deny its studio ancestry.