review by KJ Doughton, 14 February 2003

Meet Charles Kaufman (Nicholas Cage), whose picture might appear next to Insecure in the Webster’s New World Dictionary.  He’s a middle-aged, balding scruff who fixates on the fact that he’s a middle-aged, balding scruff.  He can’t sleep at night.  Sweating profusely, then working himself into a hysterical lather when excited, Charles is shy and awkward around the agents and executives he must interact with at power lunches and snooty parties.  How does Charles make a living? Why, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter, of course.

Charles is the hero of Adaptation, a fictional film, but he’s also a very real Tinseltown talent.  He penned the script for 1999’s quirky Being John Malkovich, and he’s written this equally daring story. For Adaptation, however, the penmeister has written himself into the mix. Basically, Charles has scribed a screenplay about the genuinely real accomplishments that he’s already chalked up (the Malkovich film is referred to several times), with some inspired chunks of completely make-believe storytelling stirred in to flavor the potion. 

Still with me?  Did I mention that the “real” Charles has also fabricated a twin brother named Donald for his film, who lives with him and idolizes the neurotic genius?  Or that Adaptation uses fast-frame scenes like those old high-school science movies that showed seeds sprouting from the earth and blooming into majestic flowers? Or that it jumps frantically back and forth through time, from the very Dawn of Existence to Charles’ contemporary struggle with writer’s block, as he attempts a screenplay based on the surreal adventures of an earthy, swamp-inhabiting orchid thief?

Involving the discovery of a portal into the famous actor’s pulsating gray matter, the fresh energy of Being John Malkovich was praised by most critics. However, a disgruntled minority perceived the movie as too eccentric for its own good. With a go-for-broke, anything goes aesthetic, that flings you onto the desk of Charles Darwin one minute, then into the gator-infested swamps of Florida the next, Adaptation will no doubt alienate similar viewers that resist its formula-smashing approach.  However, those who succumb to its distinctive mania will relish Kaufmann’s hailstorm of ideas, which rains down like candy spraying from an exploding piñata.   

Adaptation begins with Charles tackling a film script based on The Orchid Thief.  Chronicling the adventures of John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a savvy swamp rat who harvests endangered plants from a Florida game preserve for dubious purposes, the book is written by an unhappy New York author named Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep).  Even though Laroche is a toothless, mullet-sporting recluse who peddles pornography over the Internet and fails to prioritize personal hygiene, Orlean is envious of the shabby botanist’s passionate pursuit of his flowering quarry.  “I wanted to want something as much as people want these plants,” explains Orlean, revealing why she was drawn to his story.

After boarding a plane bound for Florida to interview Laroche for the book, Orlean finds herself enchanted with his renegade approach to life.  During one of many fascinating conversations between the unlikely pair, Laroche reveals that orchids have not been his only interest in life.  He used to fixate on a collection of tropical fish, Laroche explains, and filled his home with tanks and aquariums teeming with finny inhabitants.  “Then,” he explains matter-of-factly, “I renounced fishing. I’ve never stuck a toe in the ocean since. I was done with fish.”

Living her life as one who thinks such abrupt change – or adaptation – is a shameful process, “like running away,” the author is fascinated by her subject’s ability to drop one frenzied pursuit and take up another in the blink of an eye.  Despite his rough edges, she has become smitten with the man. “His finishes were absolute,” Orlean admiringly observes of Laroche. “He just moved on.” 

Adaptation jumps rails several times, focusing on the developing relationship between Laroche and Orlean then zeroing in on Charles’ frustrating attempts to adapt their story to the screen.  Playing both Charles and Donald, Nicholas Cage does a brilliant job of conveying the twins’ clashing personalities – even though they appear identical, there’s never a question of which one is which.  We feel for the twitchy, fearful Charles as he conjures forth every ounce of his courage to ask out a perky waitress – only to be ridiculed as an inappropriate geek.  Meanwhile we observe the uninhibited ease with which Donald picks up a cute makeup girl on a movie set, and grudgingly marvel at the sibling’s casual way with others.    

Kaufman’s insightful script also characterizes the differences between these two brothers by contrasting their approaches to screenwriting.  Charles is an elitist snob always striving to push the envelope of originality, while wannabe Donald, inspired by his brother’s talent at the typewriter, assembles a sensationalized serial killer script and attends screenwriter’s conferences.

Ultimately, the siblings team up to finish Charles’ script, finding themselves caught up in considerable intrigue along the way.  After the rich tapestry of interwoven characters that has come before, Kaufman’s script ties up its loose ends in a more conventional third act. The lives of Charles and Donald eventually become tangled up in those of Laroche and Orlean, but Adaptation is most interesting and alive as the screenwriters study their subjects from afar.  As Orlean laments her upper-crust existence with a boring husband, yearning for Laroche’s focus and enthusiasm, Charles harbors romantic longings for the author while reading her inspired book.  When all these characters finally come together, their union takes the fizz out of Adaptation’s central theme of unrequited longing. 

Adaptation rolls out an impressive carpet of supporting characters as it juggles these central stories.  Brian Cox, so convincing as a macho pederast in 2001’s L.I.E., shines as a facilitator of screenwriting workshops (“God help you if you ever use voice-overs in your script,” he screams at students from a podium, before one of Cage’s voice-overs chimes in to hilarious effect).  Tilda Swinton lights up her few scenes as a poised Hollywood bigwig, while Katherine Keener and John Malkovich also tag along for Adaptation’s wild ride.

Although his vision sputters a bit towards the end, Adaptation confirms that Kaufman is one of Hollywood’s few screenwriters that isn’t afraid to think on his own terms. His ideas don’t seem manufactured and phony. Rather, they fire like the frantic synapses of an unmedicated manic-depressive, bursting at the seams with fragments of genius, but not sure how to organize each inspired bit of insight. 

The movie’s primary concept, voiced by a key character early on, is that “passion whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”  It’s an inspired thought, and one that could have been applied to Adaptation.  By focusing on fewer ideas, and resisting the urge to bit off more than he can chew, perhaps Kaufman can shape his next vision into a more focused work.  In the meantime, let’s rejoice that he’s here.

Directed by:
Spike Jonze

Nicolas Cage
Meryl Streep
Chris Cooper
Tilda Swinton
Brian Cox
Cara Seymour
Maggie Gyllenhaal

Written by:
Charlie Kaufman
Donald Kaufman

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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