Tag Archives: Charlie Kaufman

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 Continue reading 225. ADAPTATION. (2002)

CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of , , Tom Noonan

PLOT: A motivational speaker attending a business conference is dissatisfied with his humdrum existence, until he meets a seemingly average woman who, to him, is different than everyone else in his life.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While many of Charlie Kaufman’s films are shoo-ins for any list of weird movies, Anomalisa is comparatively straightforward. The weird factor is there, but limited, with most of the film focusing on small details of human interaction.

COMMENTS: Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a renowned expert in customer service, middle-aged and settled in, married with a young son, but his apparent career and familial success have not brought him happiness. He feels isolated from those around him, exemplified by their voices, which all sound the same. He reconnects with an old flame who lives in the city where he’s staying for a conference, but their meeting only leads to further estrangement. Michael’s hopelessness is finally lifted when he hears Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, self-conscious sales representative attending the conference. Her voice is distinct, and thus she is distinct, and he immediately falls for her simply for her difference. They spend the night together and Michael hopes to begin a new life with her, but their connection is not as solid as he thinks.

Animated in an incredibly detailed stop-motion style with 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa is a film that opens itself up gradually, reveling in small tics and awkward moments and everything left unsaid. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Michael has cut himself off emotionally from everyone around him, keeping his headphones in as he walks through the airport, unwillingly engaging in small talk with his cab driver, and acting uncertain around the polite staff of his hotel. His few attempts at connection are somewhat awkward and ill-conceived, most noticeable in how he sputters his way through a drink with a former girlfriend, whom he left for no stated reason, who is still getting over the loss of him, and still questioning herself because of it. Though he seems rueful, Michael is unable to explain himself, and they leave one another disappointed. Later, he finds a “toy” store that’s open late, looking for a gift for his son but eventually realizing this shop has more adult fare. He ends up purchasing a mechanical Japanese doll shaped like a geisha, perhaps an unconscious stand-in for the multiple women he no longer loves, preferring a robotic replacement for their human inadequacies. That Michael’s professional life is centered around customer service expertise is a blatant irony, but that knowledge allows viewers to see how he must put on an act when he is with other people, much like the sales representatives he advises. He must play at being a warm, sociable human being, despite hating the sound of every voice he hears, even with his wife and son. With Lisa, he can stop acting, and Continue reading CAPSULE: ANOMALISA (2015)

64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Continue reading 64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

47. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

“Nothing fixes a thing so intently in the memory as the wish to forget it.”-Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d …”–Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson

PLOT: A shy introvert named Joel and a kooky gal named Clementine with ever-changing hair colors meet and fall in love.  After a fight Joel tries to reconcile, but discovers Clementine has availed herself of a strange and anachronistic mind-erasing technique to remove all memories of him; in a fit of pique and pain, he decides to undergo the same procedure.  But as Joel begins the erasure process, he realizes he doesn’t want to go through with it, and he travels through the landscapes of his memories to find and hold on to the rapidly vanishing Clementine.

Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Charlie Kaufman came up with the idea for this fascinating tale and co-wrote the script with the help of director Michel Gondry and obscure Parisian performance artist Pierre Bismuth.
  • The title is taken from the classic Alexander Pope poem Eloisa to Abelard, which reflects a number of philosophical and emotional touchstones of the film.
  • Before Jim Carrey expressed a desire to play Joel, the likeliest candidate for the part was Nicolas Cage (!)
  • The scene where Mark Ruffalo scares Kirsten Dunst is completely genuine: director Gondry asked that before each take that Ruffalo hide in a different spot to really scare the pants off her!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This bold and invigorating trip into the subconscious has a myriad of off-the-wall images that are sure to stick in your head. From faceless creatures to over-sized environments to entire train stations being drained of its inhabitants due to memory loss, there is a lot of weirdness going on here.  But as far as an indelible image, the one I pick is the simple scene in which Joel remembers when he and Clementine snuggle beneath an old ratty blanket and he consoles her after she recounts an intimate and revealing story about a doll she named after herself as a child.  As the memory seeps out of his head and Clementine’s body disappears, Joel crawls through the ratty blanket of his imagination begging to be able to hold on to this particular memory.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Any film birthed from the madcap imagination of Charlie

Original trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Kaufman and surreal visualist Michel Gondry has at least a pretty good shot of being kind of different.  But this movie in particular, a film about memories literally being erased from people like they were organic hard drives, really takes Kaufman’s dry strangeness and Gondry’s unhinged wild-eyed wonderment and melds it to a delightful perfection that muses on life while simultaneously compelling us with images of collapsing landscapes and Jim Carrey bathing in a sink.

COMMENTS: Some would say that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie about Continue reading 47. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

“I think the movie is fun.  It has a lot of serious emotional stuff in it, but it’s funny in a weird way. You don’t have to worry, ‘What does the burning house mean?’  Who cares.  It’s a burning house that someone lives in—it’s funny.”–Director/writer Charlie Kaufman

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener

PLOT: Caden is a community theater director in Schenectady, New York, whose marriage and health are crumbling.  When things seem their lowest—his wife abandons him, and he believes that he’s dying—he inexplicably receives a MacArthur Genius grant.  He uses the money to create a meticulous recreation of New York City inside a warehouse, filled with actors playing characters from his own life, including one playing Caden the director himself.

Still from Synecdoche, New York

BACKGROUND:

  • Synecdoche is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, who has been the screenwriter behind most of Hollywood’s big-budget weird films in the past decade.  His scripting credits include Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
  • Kaufman began the script for Synecdoche as a horror film to be directed by frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.  Over two years the script evolved into its current tragicomedy form, and, as Jonze was busy with other projects, it was agreed that Kaufman would direct, with Jonze co-producing.
  • Synecdoche, New York won the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGESynecdoche is a movie that weirds us out more through the concepts and dramatic situations than through the visuals, but there is a lovely image of a tattooed rose that physically sheds a real dead petal as its owner expires.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Charlie Kaufman.  More to the point, Charlie Kaufman unleashed; unlike Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, where weird and puzzling events are given a rational (if obscure) answer by the end, the weirdness of Synecdoche deliberately frustrates all attempts at a logical solution.  Hazel’s house, which burns and smokes for decades without being consumed, is shamelessly absurd.  The movie is an exploration of dream logic, a life journey that fractures time, space and coherence, where individual events do not add up piece by piece on a plot level, but resolve themselves on an emotional level.

Original trailer for Synecdoche, New York

COMMENTS: “There is a secret something at play under the surface, growing like an Continue reading 27. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008)

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views