DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze
PLOT: Adaptation 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.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Adaptation 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.
COMMENTS: Adaptation 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