Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 19, 2002
The Untruth About Charlie

A movie partly about its own creation, Adaptation is an absurdist romp.


The seed of Adaptation was planted when Hollywood suits asked Charlie Kaufman, the writer of 1999’s demented comic fantasia Being John Malkovich, to turn Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. Kaufman wound up with a severe case of writer’s block and got out of it by writing about his writer’s block. The result is a movie with so many layers of self-reference that it has a house-of-mirrors quality. Part of the movie is a straightforward retelling of Orlean’s book, in which the author (Meryl Streep) meets and follows John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an obsessive, down-at-the-heels Florida orchid hunter who can be unexpectedly profound on the subject of plants and nature.

The other half is the story of how Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) goes about writing the screenplay of the very same movie that we’re watching. Orlean’s book is filled with ruminations on the strangeness of people’s hobbies, and it doesn’t conform to any traditional storytelling modes. Charlie, a self-loathing bundle of insecurities and neuroses, twists himself into knots trying to be faithful to it. He reads Orlean’s book obsessively, hears her voice in his head, and has erotic dreams about her, but he’s too terrified to meet her, so he winds up stalking her. He endures stretches of horrible creative paralysis punctuated by manic bursts of inspiration, false starts, and dead ends. His anguished interior monologues contain enlightening glimpses of what kind of hell the writing process can be. (As he sits and stares at a blank page in his typewriter, we hear his voice-over: “To begin ... how to start? ... I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think ... But wait, I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee ... coffee and a muffin ... Okay, so I need to establish the themes ... maybe banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”)

Meanwhile, he has to deal with his freeloading twin brother Donald (Cage again). Donald has decided to write his own script for a truly wretched-sounding action movie about a serial killer with multiple personalities called The 3. (Terrific title! The only problem is, what if there’s a sequel to the movie? Would it be The 3 2? Stay for the closing credits, which end with a hilariously bad speech from The 3.) Donald plunges ahead with his script despite his palpable lack of talent, and his carefree attitude and constant progress are a continuing affront to Charlie.

The characters may be based on real people, but they’re every bit as fictional as the Malkovich of Being John Malkovich. (Some even more so — as far as anyone can tell, Donald Kaufman never existed, even though he’s credited as a co-writer on the film.) Director Spike Jonze constantly skips backward and forward in time, making detours to the Stone Age and Charles Darwin’s library, but he’s so deft and keeps the tone so light that you never suffer from whiplash. The Kaufmans’ script is full of comic gems like Orlean’s experimenting with drugs and Charlie’s agent (Ron Livingston) interrupting his client’s agonizing with hugely inappropriate sexual remarks about the various women in his office.

Streep and Cooper both do excellent work in difficult roles, she as a New York intellectual who wants to be bad, he as a white-trash Southerner with poetry in his soul. However, they’re swamped by the two funniest performances of Cage’s career. Charlie and Donald are made up to look exactly alike, heavyset and balding. It could easily be confusing, but Cage subtly differentiates their voices and speech rhythms so that we’re always clear as to which Kaufman brother we’re watching. The tortured Charlie and the irrepressible Donald are not only wholly realized characters in Cage’s hands, but they also play off each other as easily as any conventional comedy duo. His delivery of Donald’s climactic speech (“You are who you love. Not who loves you.”) and his reaction to it as Charlie make it more moving than it has any right to be. It’s a virtuoso turn from an actor who has been in purgatory long enough.

Near the beginning, Charlie tells a Hollywood executive, “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or people learning profound life lessons and overcoming obstacles.” The movie winds up doing exactly those things, as a drugged-out Orlean chases the Kaufmans into the Florida swamp with a gun. Unfortunately, this is the point when Adaptation finally spins out of control, and the craziness seems forced. (Also, it feels ripped off from Being John Malkovich’s similar and much wittier climax.) An uneasy feeling creeps into the film, the feeling that we’re supposed to take this seriously on some level. Jonze and Kaufman (or the Kaufmans) should have stuck with farce, which they’re so good at. Nevertheless, this miscalculation at the end isn’t enough to take the enjoyment out of a delightful concoction from two (or three) of cinema’s most inventive and twisted comic minds.

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