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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Adaptation

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep
Director: Spike Jonze
Rated: R
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: January 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

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 based.

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

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