WPCNR WHITE PLAINS VARIETY. Movie Review by Rob Barrabee. December 5, 2002:Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, tells the story of Charlie Kaufman trying to write Adaptation. Kaufman’s original plan, the movie explains, is simply to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, which details the life of Florida plant dealer John Laroche. But Mr. Kaufman, we discover, just can’t seem to make a screenplay out of the book (“there’s no story”).
To remedy this, he inserts himself as a character; the starring character, in fact (“I’ve written myself into my screenplay”). So, instead of a movie version of The Orchid Thief, we have a (highly fictionalized) movie version of Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief.
We have Adaptation, the astonishing new comedy from the cleverest screenwriter in the business (he earned this title, by the way, after scripting ‘Being John Malkovich’).
In the sentence of the previous paragraph (not including the parenthetic “by the way”), I inexplicably included the phrase “highly fictionalized.” Allow me, now, to explain:
Adaptation is about a real screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman) trying to adapt a real book (The Orchid Thief); a book written by a real author (Susan Orlean), and telling the story of a real plant dealer (John Laroche). The struggling screenwriter even seeks the assistance of a real screenwriting guru (Robert McKee).
The movie, then, has got to be real, right? Hardly. One of the most important characters in the film is Charlie Kaufman’s wild and crazy twin, Donald. Charlie doesn’t have a twin. “But,” you might say, “the credits list Donald as one of the film’s writers.” Let me repeat, Charlie doesn’t have a twin. And if that’s not enough to convince you of the film’s “highly fictionalized” status, just wait ‘til you see the end.
In the interest of preserving any potential element of surprise, I will not get into details, but I will say this: the ending couldn’t possibly be real.
The film, unreal as it is, is directed by Spike Jonze, who also directed Being John Malkovich (he and Kaufman get along, apparently). In that film, Jonze showed quite a bit of restraint, directing an off-the-wall story in a very on-the-wall manner. This time, he loosens up a bit, and directs Adaptation with zany glee (think, for example, of a thirty second journey through the history of time). The results of this zaniness, for the most part, are tremendous. Excluding the already-alluded-to surreal ending, which I think goes a little too far, Jonze’s Adaptation is as smart and funny as a comedy can be. It is fast-paced, and it is fresh. It is witty, clever filmmaking at its best.
Nicolas Cage stars in the film as both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cage’s Charlie (fat, bald) is hysterically introverted and self-loathing. Cage’s Donald (fat, bald, but happy) is hysterically foolish and outgoing. Put the two together, and this is one of the best, and most hysterical, performances of the year.
Sports teams are often complimented for “going from worst to first.” By going from his roles in Windtalkers and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin to this, Nicolas Cage deserves the same kind of recognition.
Kudos go out to the supporting cast too. Meryl Streep gives an excellent comedic turn as Susan Orlean, and Chris Cooper is so good as (the toothless) John Laroche that he finally, after more than thirty movies, is getting people to notice him (Oscar people, if you pay attention to the buzz).
Speaking of Oscars, this sure-shot contender could cause some serious problems for the Academy. Should, for example, Nicolas Cage be nominated for one Oscar or two? Should Donald Kaufman get a screenwriting nomination, even though he doesn’t exist? And, most importantly, should the film’s screenplay be considered original or, well, adapted?
My feelings on these issues are as follows: (1) Nicolas Cage should not be nominated twice, but he should certainly be nominated once. (2) Donald Kaufman should receive no nominations, but his brother most decidedly should. (3) Despite its title, and the assertion in the credits that it is based on Susan Orlean’s book, the screenplay for Adaptation should be considered original, and not, oddly enough, adapted.
Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie (and Donald) Kaufman, based on the book The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for language, sexuality, some drug use, and violent images)