If Atom Egoyan's film "Ararat" is the most intellectual film of the
year, then Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" is the most imaginative.
Though the two films are in some ways as different as writer
Charlie Kaufman's two principal characters (both played by
Nicolas Cage), they share a Piranellian story in their explorations
of life, both operating as Russian-doll-like films within films.
Jonze and Kaufman, who teamed up to make the most
imaginative black comedy of 1999 "Being John Malkovich," (about
a puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of the actor John
Malkovich), have one-upped even that previous work. As rich as a
Nineteenth Century fable but bearing a thoroughly modern look
into the mind of a self-hating, painfully shy neurotic, "Adaptation"
uses a screenplay based on an uncinematic nonfiction book to
examine the need of its two principal characters to adapt their
unhappiness into joy.
The movie is loaded with comic thrusts and features trick
photography that allows an individual to appear seamlessly on the
same screen as his own double. The comedy and the
photography, however, are in the service of the story's theme,
which is passion: specifically the wish we all have to be like
anyone whom we perceive has a life that is richer and more alive
than our own. In this case the two despairing characters are
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who also happens to be the
screenwriter of this film, and Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who
also happens to be the writer of the book on which the movie is
The book is the sort that might appear on the coffee tables of
aesthetes and those who want to give that impression but one
would scarcely believe it to be cinematic. Orlean's "The Orchid
Thief" is a study of the flower, sometimes called the sexiest of all
perhaps because the word "orchid" comes from the Latin word for
"testicle." Charlie is commissioned to adapt the book into a
screenplay, but his twin brother Donald (who is a figment of the
actual scripter of this movie), thinks the movie lacks melodrama
and will not sell. Donald instead is busy writing about a serial
killer, a choice that the more artsy Charlie looks down upon.
Moreover Charlie, unlike Donald, doesn't think much of Robert
McKee (Brian Cox), who is real life does what his character does
in this movie: advise would-be scripters how to write.
The surreal nature of the movie, the idea that the real Charlie
Kaufman puts himself into his own screenplay not just once but
yet once again when the Charlie Kaufman of the movie puts
himself into his screenplay, is pure delight. When the real Charlie
Kaufman writes into his screenplay an imaginary twin brother
Donald (also played by Nic Cage), and the Charlie Kaufman of the
movie also writes the twin brother into HIS movie, we're flirting with
a vivid imagination deliciously running amok.
Kaufman (both the real guy and the movie guy) has written
Susan Orlean into this story, a woman who is researching an
article about one John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who is
passionately interested in orchids, knows all about them, and
takes the journalist into the Florida swamps in search of as many
of the one hundred varieties as can be found. In writing the story
and eventually the book "The Orchid Thief," Orlean, accustomed
to hanging out with writer-types from the New Yorker, realizes that
she's only half-alive, dead from the neck down, inspired by John
Laroche into making an adaptation into her own life that would
charge her near-dead batteries.
Not only is the plot-line an original one brimming with energy: in
addition, director Spike Jonze has photographer Lance Acord tell
us the history and even prehistory of Florida from the beginning of
time four billions years ago to the present, all illustrated by the
camera in a single minute. A stroke of genius in a movie that
should sew up an Oscar nomination for Nicolas Cage in the role of
Charlie Kaufman and, who knows...maybe another one for Nic
Cage in the role of Donald. Now, there's a surreal fantasy!
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten