I am naturally tempted to write a meta-review of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's meta-nonfictional Adaptation. After all, this is a movie about a screenwriter who can't write a screenplay about a nonfiction writer who has trouble writing a book about an environmentalist who doesn't want to obey laws designed to protect the environment.
So why not a review about a reviewer who can't write a review of the movie about a screenwriter who can't write a screenplay about a nonfiction writer who has trouble writing her book without finally writing about herself. On the other hand, Kaufman did finally write a screenplay about a blocked screenwriter. And it was made into the movie Adaptation. And even though aspects of that movie attempt to swallow its own tail, perhaps I should review it. If I can figure out how to.
Jonze and Kaufman, of course, were the director and writer of Being John Malkovich, the most original motion picture I have ever seen and the film I picked as the year's best in 1999. Adaptation proves conclusively that they were hardly one-shot wonders. So maybe I should state early in my review that fans of Malkovich don't want to miss Adaptation.
Adaptation is the story of a neurotic screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) who is hired to adapt a nonfiction bestseller for the screen. The book is The Orchid Thief by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who is noted for injecting herself into her work. Supremely literary and chock-a-block with ruminations on natural beauty, Darwinian theory, the connectedness of all living things and the diminution of passion in the modern civilized world, The Orchid Thief is not a natural story to relate in cinematic images. And indeed, Kaufman, the writer of Adaptation, defies movie convention by telling much of his story in words. Kaufman, the character, speaks to the viewer incessantly in voiceover. And Meryl Streep reads aloud many of the telling passages from Orlean's book.
The dramatic elements in The Orchid Thief largely involve the mad obsession some flower lovers develop and the passion in particular of a self-taught botanist named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who was once arrested for stealing an endangered species of orchid from a federally protected Florida swamp. A screenwriter of more traditional instincts would no doubt have concentrated on Laroche's story, his questionable but intriguing value system, his stubborn skirmishes with the law and his fascinating relationship with Orlean. Much could be made of the contrast between these two people joined together as author and subject, she the erudite, sophisticated, cerebral Manhattanite and he the smelly, crude, toothless, rural Floridian. And some of this connection definitely makes its way into the film.
But Kaufman, the writer, sought to do something more than excise the book's dramatic moments and translate them for the screen. He desired to capture the essence of Orlean's self-reflective book. To do so, he decided to make a self-reflective movie about his own writing process. The Orchid Thief is not a story about John Laroche, but Susan Orlean's story about telling the story of John Laroche. In that spirit, Adaptation is Kaufman's story about adapting for the screen Orlean's story about telling the story of John Laroche.
And a heck of a story it is! Narratively, it's about a committed artist so deeply insecure he's almost immobilized. Kaufman, the character, has self-doubts about his talent, his looks, and his attractiveness to women. As a mirror for his character's insecurity, Kaufman, the writer, has invented a twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), who looks just like Charlie, the character, but is different in every other way. Donald is a happy screenwriting hack who sells a ridiculous thriller for more than a million bucks and beds a bevy of babes along the way. In short, Donald is a man who has what Charlie has while nonetheless being the kind of man Charlie detests.
In being the story of a principled but blocked screenwriter, Adaptation is a Hollywood parody in pursuit of observations about the film industry a lot more searching and deadly than those in more popular recent entertainments like The Player, Bowfinger, The Muse or Simone. That parody-laced ambition, however, results in Kaufman's (the character) ultimate sell-out. Early on Kaufman, the character, pledges not to ruin his adaptation by "making it a Hollywood thing" and cramming in "sex or guns or car chases." But in the end, that's just what he does, and though we get the point, the narrative developments themselves, outrageous though they are, are neither as funny or as clever as we desire.
Still, Adaptation offers brilliant performances (Cage hasn't been this good in ages, and Cooper is sensational), writing that is surpassed only by Kaufman's work on Malkovich, and direction that is both speedy and crystal clear. I predict nominations and awards for this breath of fresh air. And I will be right, if I do write those words myself.
- Writers' block: Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is trapped with author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) in Spike Jonze's latest, Adaptation.