AdaptationReviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 12/20/02 00:18:14
Remember that scene in Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” where the chimpanzee had to try and find inner courage? The movie took a daring flashback to show the chimp’s inner psyche, to let us in on what cripples him (or was it a her? I don’t remember.) Suddenly, we left the confines of John Cusack’s and Cameron Diaz’s apartment only to be thrown into the jungles of Africa where the chimp suffered severe trauma as a result of seeing his/her family captured while the chimp sat helpless. Why did this scene exist? What does it have to do with anything? Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman instead asked ‘why not?’ Out of nowhere, a secondary character—maybe not even that—had been given one of the greatest gifts a screenwriter can give to his/her creation: Honest to goodness, sincere character development. And it only took 30 seconds.“Adaptation,” also from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, at first feels like a feature-length version of that very scenario. The whole of “Adaptation,” however, defies description and to try and sum up the movie with a single review seems pointless. But film criticism, among other things, is based on the ethic that art needs to be discussed and the more voices to throw into the mix, the better. People will be talking about this movie for years. Nothing I say about “Adaptation” will prepare you for it. The movie throws things at you that you must put together, but it will all make sense in the end.
So, let’s give this a try. “Adaptation” tells the story of Charlie Kaufman. Yes, the screenwriter, and if you think that a screenwriter writing about himself without even changing the names to protect the innocent seems too self-indulgent to be taken seriously, be aware ahead of time that the movie addresses this. Normally, you would be right in your assumption. I don’t think of this as self-indulgence. This is just a screenwriter cutting through the BS. (How weird is it that the next movie I would watch on the same day would be “Antwone Fisher,” a movie about Antwone Fisher, written by Antwone Fisher?)
Okay, so this story is about Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicholas Cage, trying to write a screenplay adaptation of a book titled The Orchid Thief written by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Charlie can’t hack it. He doesn’t want to write a straightforward narrative Hollywood piece, but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to be weird either, like his last movie “Being John Malkovich.” Being socially inept, he can’t bring himself to meet the author face-to-face. God forbid he should have to attend one of those wretched screenwriting seminars, highly recommended to him by his slightly dense screenwriter-wannabe brother, Donald, also played by Nicholas Cage.
The movie also tells a parallel story about Susan and her quest to find what makes this story (if you can call it that) tick in the first place. She hooks up with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a seemingly simple orchid enthusiast who continues to reveal layers of his personality to the point where we feel half-way through the movie that we’ve been had. He is quite the interesting character, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty. And he loves orchids. Susan finds this character as compelling as we do, and their search for orchids, as well as Kaufman’s search for that spark that will ignite the great American screenplay, is one of the most original and daring parallel storylines in many years.
Now, please don’t feel as though I just spoiled the movie for you. Again, that would be next to impossible and I wouldn’t have the room necessary on this page to attempt such a feat. I have basically given you the simplest possible outline. As for the rest, you’re on your own. While the movie doesn’t get quite as caught up in its own eccentricities or its densely-layered plot as “Being John Malkovich,” it is just as engaging, if not more so, and thought-provoking.
And I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am to have Nicholas Cage back. The Nicholas Cage I knew and loved, the “Vampires Kiss”-“Raising Arizona”-“Moonstruck”-“Peggy Sue Got Married”-“Wild At Heart” Nicholas Cage. The one who made weird choices with his approach to character, the one who didn’t care about how buff he looked for the action scenes, the one who would play the high school sweetheart, but with a strange nasally drone. Cage is back and I couldn’t be happier, and he hasn’t been this good since, well, “Leaving Las Vegas,” which is also good Cage.
The same goes for Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, who together ignite some strange chemistry, the likes of which you don’t see much. On one hand, it’s an old story where an upper-class New York intellectual falls for a backwoods, dirty hick, but the execution and the way in which Kaufman (the screenwriter, not the character) gives the romance its drive is anything but ordinary.I realize the word “strange” has been popping up in this review quite often. “Adaptation” is strange, but in the best possible way. It will put off people who may be looking for entertainment along the lines of that Greek wedding movie. It is a movie to chew on and to see multiple times. The credits just ended an hour ago as I write this and I feel another viewing is in order, not because I missed something, but because it’s that good of a movie. Film critics and reviewers have to sit through a lot of junk and a movie as engrossing and hilarious as “Adaptation” tends to stick out from the flower bed, like a wild orchid coming into bloom amidst ordinary rows of store-bought petunias. Indeed, we have come quite a long way from the chimp.
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