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
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
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.