I was sorely tempted to let my imaginary twin brother, Larry, write this review, but he was partaking of one of his many philanthropic pursuits, leading a deer hunting trip for a group of kids from the Braille Institute, and hasn’t been seen since.
Adaptation has a great deal in common with the other Charlie Kaufman films, mainly in how it plays with reality like your cat played with that gopher it caught in the back yard. While it’s “officially” based on the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the movie is actually about Charlie Kaufman’s unsuccessful effort to write a usable script from the book, as well as about the author’s relationship with the subject of the story, a self-styled botanist named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). The other storyline revolves around Charlie’s fictitious twin Donald and his attempt to become a screenwriter like his brother.
Donald and Charlie (both played by Nicholas Cage) are such polar opposites that they are almost like that episode of the original Star Trek where Kirk is split into his good and evil halves. It would be too easy to suggest that both characters represent competing aspects of the real Charlie Kaufman’s personality, on one side his self-doubt and artistic integrity and on the other the temptation to give in to the temptation of commercial compromise. Donald is a sponge who only knows how to write what he has already seen in the movies or what he’s heard from screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee (Brian Cox). The movie version of Charlie is a sweat-soaked amalgamation of insecurities and doubts, obsessing over his own shortcomings as a person and as a writer.
The movie mixes reality with fantasy with an exhilarating sort of abandon, telling the almost true story of how the simple theft of a rare flower from ancestral Seminole Indian land became the obsession of a writer from New Yorker magazine and how her book became an oppressive stone on the back of a wildly creative screenwriter. Adaptation doubles back on itself, becoming probably the only film to tell the story of how it came to be written. The basic setup of the book is true enough. Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief into screenplay and found it so completely impossible to find a usable narrative within the book that he wound up writing about his difficulty with writing the script.
The film opens during the filming of Charlie’s breakthrough film, Being John Malkovich, and these scenes feature actors and crew from the actual film, such as Malkovich himself, John Cusack and director Spike Jonze, so we have actors playing themselves, other actors playing highly fictionalized versions of real people and one of them also playing the non-existent relative of one of those very real persons. Said fictitious relative also got a real-world screenplay credit on this film.
Yep, this is a Charlie Kaufman movie, all right.
Nicholas Cage probably gives one of the best performances of his career, carving two distinctive personalities out of characters that, for the most part, look and talk almost alike. He uses adroit body language to instantly capture both Donald’s clueless self-confidence and Charlie’s bundle of self-aware neuroses. Charlie sweats and strains over every word while Donald casually bats out a derivative action movie that, naturally, sells for six-figures, only deepening Charlie’s crisis of confidence.
Chris Cooper disappears like D. B. Cooper into his role of Laroche, a folk-intellectual with constantly shifting obsessions. Something like orchids (or tropical fish or turtles or. . .) can be the singular focus of his life, until something else captures his attention and then the old obsession is abandoned as abruptly as it was taken up. Meryl Streep finds both comedy and tragedy in a woman whose passion is finding something to be as passionate about as John Laroche is about orchids.
As Charlie comes under more pressure to finish a script he has barely started, he becomes desperate enough to turn to his brother for help. From that moment forward, Adaptation shifts gears and leaves reality in the dust as it morphs into the kind of action fare that Donald would write. Susan Orleans and John Laroche are suddenly action villains in a frenzied chase across an alligator infested swamp. In another movie, this would be an example of the writer running out of ideas, but here it makes perfectly twisted sense.
This film has enough balls to feature real world scriptwriting coach Robert McKee as a character while consciously flouting almost every piece of advice he’s ever given a fledgling writer. It takes a lot of skill on all levels for a movie to break this many of the basic rules of cinematic storytelling and not only get away with it, but make you like it all the more for it.