**** (out of 5)
December 6, 2002
Nicolas Cage as CHARLIE KAUFMAN/DONALD KAUFMAN
Meryl Streep as SUSAN ORLEAN
Chris Cooper as JOHN LAROCHE
Tilda Swinton as VALERIE
Cara Seymour as AMELIA
Brian Cox as ROBERT MCKEE
Directed by: Spike Jonze
BY KEVIN CARR
After I saw Spike Jonze’s breakout film “Being John Malcovich,” I often told people it was one of the few original movies I have ever seen. If anything, “Being John Malcovich” took some older concepts and archetypes and wove them into a surreal exploration of the human psyche. Since it was Jonze’s first big film after years of directing music videos, it was a hard act to follow.
But he was able to follow it… with a little help from “Being John Malcovich” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. In general, Hollywood loves movies about itself, so of course they love this one. But this is something that the average Joe can enjoy as well.
“Adaptation” is the story of Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who has been hired by a studio to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book “The Orchid Thief” into a feature-length screenplay. The only problem is that “The Orchid Thief” doesn’t really have much of a story. It is about flowers, really. And a man named John Laroche, who uses Native American loopholes to poach wild orchids out of the Florida Everglades.
Kaufman tries to come up with a unique angle on the story to make an interesting movie about flowers without selling out his artistic integrity. He falls insanely behind on his deadline before he even is able to get past page one, and his obsessive personality causes him to focus in a somewhat unhealthy manner on the book’s author (Meryl Streep) – and various other women he encounters from ex-girlfriends to a waitress at a local restaurant.
Throughout the film, Kaufman struggles with adapting the book while his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) is trying his hand at screenwriting. Although they are twins, Charlie and Donald are fiercely different. While Charlie is a pathetically depressing person who subconsciously sabotages every relationship he has, Donald is much freer and fun to be around, eventually getting it on with the make-up artist from “Being John Malcovich” (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Eventually, Charlie finds a unique angle, but it ends up catching himself and his brother in a whirlwind of lies and deceit, leading them on a dangerous mission into the Everglades.
In reality, Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt Orlean’s book for the big screen. Orlean, a writer for “The New Yorker,” had published a series or articles about Laroche in her magazine before compiling it into a book. One side note about Orlean is that some of her other articles were the inspiration for last summer’s chick surfer film “Blue Crush.”
This film is what resulted from Charlie Kaufman’s struggles to bring “The Orchid Thief” to life. “Adaptation” plays with reality, even going as far to credit the fictional Donald Kaufman as a co-writer of the screenplay. (Yup, Donald doesn’t exist in real life.) How much else is not real? Who knows, but it still makes a good story. And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?
The acting in this film is incredible, especially from Chris Cooper who plays Laroche from a totally different angle than his tyrannical father figure in “American Beauty.” In fact, the only actor who doesn’t shine is Meryl Streep, who seems to just be going through the motions in her movies nowadays.
Nicolas Cage does a superb job acting against his type by playing the twin brothers, who are both losing their hair and gaining weight. And although they physically look the same, Cage is able to bring each one to life as a different person. While Donald is out partying and trying to sell his first screenplay, Charlie is left at home to fantasize about women he’s met during the day and masturbate when he’s not staring at a blank page in a typewriter.
One great joy of this film is the skewering of screenwriting guru Robert McKee. The author of the book “Story,” McKee hosts a touring seminar that “teaches” would-be screenwriters how to write. “Adaptation” shows the ridiculous hero worship of McKee (played by Brian Cox) by his students, and gives us great insight into how much of a racket McKee is operating.
With seminars with attendance in the hundreds for each session, McKee swears and screams at students about the basics of formulating a story – and he makes a mint off of it. Thousands of people go through McKee’s course each years – each one paying around $300 for a seminar (for information you can get in any screenwriting book at the library for free). And how many of his students turn out decent screenplays. Well, do the math yourself. There just aren’t thousands of new screenwriters producing decent material each year. Far from it.