225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’ve written myself into my screenplay.

DONALD KAUFMAN: That’s kind of weird, huh?

Adaptation.

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Chris Cooper, Brian Cox

PLOT: Screenwriter , fresh off the hit Being John Malkovich, is contractually and mentally trapped as he is forced to plow his way through an impossible project: “writing a movie about flowers.” Things go from bleak to bizarre as he finds himself competing with his endearingly oblivious twin brother, Donald, who also aspires to be a screenwriter. Charlie slips further and further past the deadline, until things come to a head in the film’s swampy denouement where he comes face-to-face with both the writer of and titular character from “The Orchid Thief,” the book he is adapting for the screen.

Still from Adaptation. (2002)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay for Adaptation. was on Charlie Kaufman’s to-do list since the late ’90s. Tasked with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel-length essay “The Orchid Thief” and suffering the same problems as his doppelganger, he kept his progress secret from everyone other than Spike Jonze until 2000, when the movie was green-lit for production.
  • Screenwriting guru Robert McKee and his seminars are real. He personally suggested Brian Cox play him in the movie.
  • Adaptation. handily recouped the producers’ investment, with a return of $32.8 million worldwide on a $19 million outlay.
  • Nominated for four Oscars: best actor for Cage, supporting actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Streep, and adapted screenplay for Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Cooper was the only winner.
  • Though “Donald” Kaufman’s serial killer script The 3 was never shot, the idea may have inspired two subsequent movies, 2003’s Identity and 2006’s Thr3e.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Returning from a misfired date, Charlie finds his twin brother already back home from a writer’s seminar, brimming over with newly adopted wisdom. As Charlie stands in front of his hallway mirror, Donald’s face is captured in the reflection as he expounds upon his own screenplay’s “image system” involving broken mirrors. Charlie’s expression goes from dour to disbelieving at this inanity, and the viewer sees the movie mock both itself and screenplay tricks. A further twist is added by the fact that the blurry reflection in the mirror is the face of the actual Charlie Kaufman talking to Nicolas Cage.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Film-within-a-film-within-a-screenplay-within-a-screenplay ; Ouroboros; orchid-snorting

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: For all its unconventionality, Adaptation is amazingly self-deprecating. Spoilers unravel in opening scenes and are tossed aside, coastal city elites are presented as real people with the petty little problems real people have, and Nicolas Cage gains a bit of weight and loses a bit of hair to provide the compelling double performance as the Kaufman brothers. Events seem scattershot, only to have their purposes later clarified as the tightly structured flow keeps the viewer jumping from moment to moment, always questioning which parts of this convoluted tale are actually true.

COMMENTS: Between its thorough description of the protagonist and its summary of itself within the opening scene, Adaptation is quick to lay its cards out for the viewer. However, even the most observant of filmgoers is likely to get bombarded with surprises as the film hatches. Indeed, the cards shimmer, mirage-like, making promises that are fulfilled not as you look closer, but as you step back. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze have put together one of the finest examples of cinema sleight-of-hand with Adaptation, acting as one conjurer who shows you everything he’s doing while you continue to stand in disbelief at the proceedings.

The impossibility of summarizing the plot goes hand-in-hand with the protagonist’s own inability to throw together a linear story based on the meandering source material. John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an enterprising grandee of botany, fossils, 19th-century Dutch mirrors, tropical fish, and sundry gets the idea of gathering a staggeringly rare “ghost” orchid with the aid of some Native American associates. He is caught leaving a preserve and is taken to court for poaching. His travails catch the eye of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), a reporter for “The New Yorker,” who writes an article on the eccentric which she later expands into book form. Enter poor Charlie Kaufman, who latches on to the project during the filming of Being John Malkovich. After some months of hemming, hawing, restarting, redacting, and burning out, he finds that, thirteen weeks later, he’s got nothing to show for his time. His brother Donald, on the other hand, glides into the world of screenwriting from out of nowhere and quickly throws together a thriller that he writes with superhuman speed and which is immediately snapped up by Charlie’s agent. Dead-end meets dead-beat, and the two brothers go on an unlikely adventure to save Charlie’s script.

Holding together the neurotic web of meanderings is Nicolas Cage’s sympathetic performance. Playing both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, his depiction is a paranoid tour-de-force, showing the minds of a pair of geniuses (the latter, perhaps, less so than the former). The Kaufman brothers are similar individuals, each demarcated only by a slight veering of personality. Donald is a carefree fellow, lacking the tangled depths of his brother (though perhaps not — we don’t have the benefit of narration for his thought-flow). When he’s onscreen with himself, Cage firmly defines the separate entities: Charlie is always slouched and nervous, Donald is always relaxed and playful. Cage makes sure the viewer always knows who is whom, something both useful and apt as the two brothers, though made up of identical DNA, are like a Yin-and-Yang-lite.

The film’s central metaphor (as opposed to the protagonist’s central metaphor of Ouroboros) is laid out in the third act, with both brothers together in a New York city hotel. Donald reads a passage from “The Orchid Thief” about the unfurling paper ball that becomes a flower when submerged in a glass of water. The movie starts out straight: here’s a guy who cannot figure out how to write something. He writes about that problem. And then he writes about the problem of writing about the problem. Various branches of the story peek out and cycle back within the writer’s mind, making the metaphor not just a flower, but a tessellated one. Everything locks together nicely, following the nervous logic put forward at the film’s start.

While clearly not for everyone, Adaptation is for anyone looking for a brilliant thought-exercise in the guise of an awkward comedy. Spike Jonze brings to the table not only his eye for story-telling, but also his staunch support for Kaufman’s work. Nicolas Cage ties together the two halves of the pair of brothers through self-deprecation and by restraining of his own tendencies for bravura. Brian Cox shines in a small but instrumental role as a domineering lecturer who helps both of the brothers with their work. Meryl Streep is a lot of fun, which is something I wouldn’t generally say about her. And, of course, tying this together after tidily boxing it up, there is the real Charlie Kaufman: his screenplay shows that no one in his right mind would want to be him, but he makes us truly grateful he’s around to supply us with eccentric brain food like Adapation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

an absurdist black comedy and brilliantly sustained meta-joke on the modern entertainment industry… The general screwiness of this film is, in the deepest sense, the source of its pleasure.“–James Kendrick, Q (contemporaneous)

“…comes excitingly close to being some kind of masterpiece of surrealism.”–William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (contemporaneous)

“There have been numerous films that have used the inner turmoil of the wordsmith for cinematic fodder—Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Day of the Locust (1975), The Singing Detective (1986), Mishima (1985), Barton Fink (1991), Naked Lunch (1991), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Wonder Boys (2000), Swimming Pool (2003) and Sideways (2004) are just a few that come to mind. A disparate group of films to say the least, but each one of them conveys in some manner the inner weirdness, terror, excitement, and boredom of a writer’s life. But none of them plunges so deeply or blatantly into the actual mental anguish of the cerebral writing process itself, the actual painstaking, solitary drudgery of making words sing upon a page, than Kaufman and Jonze’s film.”–Derek Hill, “Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave

OFFICIAL SITE: Adaptation | Sony Pictures

IMDB LINK: Adaptation. (2002)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Adaptation – The Adaptation. page at fansite Being Charlie Kaufman, including links to two early drafts of the screenplay

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman discuss Adaptation – IGN’siInterview with Jonze and Kaufman

Adaptation Movie Review & Film Summary – Roger Ebert’s essay on Adaptation. for his “great movies” series

regarding: Adaptation – Susan Orlean’s official site includes a weblog updating news items about the film

Adaptation Movie True Story – The real story behind the “Orchid Thief,” including a link to an interview with Susan Orlean

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002) – This site’s original review of Adaptation.

DVD INFO: The Image Entertainment Adaptation DVD (buy) is about as straightforward as the movie isn’t. The only extras are the theatrical trailer and filmographies for the principals (including Donald Kaufman). There is an interesting menu animation with an ant and an Easter Egg that’s now non-functional (a phone number for the Adaptation answering machine, since disconnected).

The Blu-Ray of Adaptation (buy) has a transfer that is quite good, as we’ve come to expect from major studio releases on this medium, so the picture and sound are top notch: the colors are right, the sound is natural, and the score is as audible as is appropriate. Those seeking extras might be disappointed, however, as the only thing other than the movie found on the disc is a very brief “behind-the-scenes” reel from one of the swamp shoots. That said, seeing as this movie provides its own commentary in-house, further analysis would likely prove superfluous.

Adaptation is also available on-demand (rent or buy).

3 thoughts on “225. ADAPTATION. (2002)”

  1. This is really great. Adaptation is my favorite “aware of being self-aware” movie. It’s a comedy, but also deeply compelling as a drama. I like it better than “Synecdoche,” which is amazing but way too serious.

  2. I was very proud that my own little list still contained some movies, that weren’t on yours. But you catch up very fast.

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