ADAPTATION

Directed by Spike Jonze

Written by Charlie and the apocryphal Donald Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean's book THE ORCHID THIEF

With Nicolas Cage, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton and Brian Cox

**1/2
So irony is dead. Roll over and tell Charlie Kaufman the news. Postmodern as fuck, ADAPTATION  structures itself to be almost critic-proof (as  Mark Peranson has suggested.)  Combining three different stories, it blurs the lines between them. The finale, which looks like a Hollywood screenwriting manual product, may be  a  film-within-the-film (as the vision of one of the lead characters), but it's never explicitly stated as  one. The hyperbolic happy ending  comes off as a joke, a la BLUE VELVET, but it also satisfies the emotional demands set up by the main story. We want to see one of the characters finally fall in love after spending 90 minutes complaining about how lonely he is, so he does. We want to see two brothers make peace with each other, so they do. Alas,  the film is too clever and glib for its own good: it works best  in its first two thirds and then pops like a balloon. Still,  its most conventional section is also its least conventional, which counts for something.

After writing BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Charlie Kaufman (Cage)  runs out of ideas. Agreeing to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction book THE ORCHID THIEF  (based on a NEW YORKER article), he becomes obsessed with his weight, baldness and lack of success with women. All these neuroses prevent him from getting much work done, even when deadlines loom. His brother  Donald (also played by Cage) is  a bit thinner,  far more confident and  lucky with women. While staying with Charlie, Donald begins working on a screenplay. It sounds awful: a thriller about a serial killer who has 3 personalities (the killer, the woman he's kidnapped, the cop who's tracking him down.) A devotee of Robert McKee (Brian Cox), Donald encourages Charlie to adopt a more conventional approach. Meanwhile, a finished film seems to play out alongside this plot thread. Susan (Streep) travels to Miami to meet John LaRoche (Cooper), who prowls remote swamps for rare orchids. John looks like a redneck - almost all  his front teeth are missing - but he's an obsessive savant. All four of the main characters are based on real people.

Charlie's consciousness is the film's. In real life, Charlie Kaufman is reportedly thin and laden with a full head of hair, but it's impossible to tell how much genuine insecurity he has pumped into his alter ego. When Charlie pops up on the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, he gets pushed away. His solitary process of writing has nothing to do with the collective act of filmmaking. He's not always likable (he'd probably have more luck with the ladies if he wasn't so obsessed with his loneliness), but he's an easy identification figure. Donald is too glib, too successful and Hollywood: it's natural for most people to root for the underdog and feel superior for doing so. Cage does a fine job of distinguishing between the twin brothers' personalities, while suggesting an inner yearning for reconciliation. Donald may be a player, but he's no asshole.

When ADAPTATION sticks with Charlie, it's  compelling, especially because translating the act of writing onscreen is so difficult. The Kaufmans get around that by using huge amounts of voice-over. McKee warns against this device, but I can't see any other way that Charlie's problems could be described so intimately. The film-within-the-film works, despite Charlie's self-consciousness about it. Only in the final half hour does Kaufman go off the rails. And they do so very deliberately, raising all sorts of questions about the entire film. 

Although Jonze and  Kaufmas are clearly aiming for something more,   ADAPTATION succeeds as a simple comedy about a screenwriter's frustration with his life and art. . However,  its games  with structure and identity pale next to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. That film conveyed a real sense of what it's like to work at a soul-destroying job and suffer through absurd interactions with jerks. Compared to John Cusack's character there, Charlie is privileged enough to sit in his house and drone on about how much he hates himself and can't get any work done. Admittedly, his self-obsession  is quite funny, but it's not enough to sustain a 2-hour film. Something else takes its place.

If Charlie probably wrote the interludes between Susan and John, Donald has stepped in for the ending. It's full of sex, drugs, guns and car chases (with even a little bit of rock'n'roll.) In retrospective, it makes one wonder whether the entire film is an experiment in creating various forms, juxtaposing them and knocking them down.  To be incredibly cynical, hip audiences can get off on the irony and mainstream audiences can take the ending straight. Ultimately, it tries for a workable compromise between Charlie and Donald's visions of art and the world. Hollywood conventions themselves don't automatically merit contempt - McKee has a point when he says that drama happens all around us in real life - but here, they feel stiff and wildly out of place. The two brothers' bonding produces no catharsis, just a feeling that the puppetmaster is hard at work.

ADAPTATION is a potentially promising idea: Woody Allen stuck in a Hollywood version of an 80s Raul Ruiz film. ( THE PURPLE OF CAIRO comes closest.) BEING JOHN MALKOVICH came close to that level of imagination. Back in 1999, I wrote that "it seems to be 'about' practically everything under the sun: virtual reality, the nature of acting (and other forms of creativity, by implication), the seductive appeal of celebrity, the social construction of gender, and our bodies' fragility, for starters." ADAPTATION touches on the nature of creativity (and the seductive appeal of flowers, I guess) and a few other issues (the multiple meanings of adaptation and compromise), but in comparison, it's much less successful. Given the current state of filmmaking, its implications are practically utopian: Charlie and Donald should become real twins,   adapting and synthesizing each other's visions. Under the aegis of Columbia Pictures, it's a defense of the merger between independent film and Hollywood, which has become Indiewood. Too bad this provocative notion comes wrapped in so much glib irony.