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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 Jerry Saravia
4 stars out of 4

Some directors can keep you tapped in their stories without ever waning interest. I ascribe such magical tapping to directors like Kubrick, Scorsese, Brian De Palma, David Fincher, Ingmar Bergman, etc. Spike Jonze, the director of 1999's fabulously inventive "Being John Malkovich," has talent to spare in adapting screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's works. Kaufman, of course, also wrote "Malkovich" so these two are a workable team together. Their latest venture is "Adaptation," an absorbing, capricious comedy that never pushes too far into exaggeration or farce to make the laughs true and forceful. This is the kind of film that makes you laugh after the film is over rather than while you are watching it.

Nicolas Cage plays the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, a balding, sweaty, shy man who is celebrated for having written "Being John Malkovich." On the set of "Malkovich," he waves to the leading stars who avoid him like the plague. The other star of that film, John Malkovich, dictates to the crew how long to hold each shot before shooting begins (a curious scene considering director Spike Jonze would have given that kind of direction. Hmmm). Kaufman is anxious to work on another script, something as bold and original as the former but he can't decide what to do for an encore. A book called "The Orchid Thief," a real-life novel written by a real-life novelist named Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), holds some interest. "This movie should be about flowers. No one has ever made a movie about flowers," says Kaufman. Indeed, this may be true, but Kaufman is still having a hell of a time adapting this novel which is about nothing but flowers.

In the meantime, Kaufman's brother, Donald (also played by Cage), is living in Charlie's house. He gets the bright idea to write a screenplay himself, a thriller that is a cross between "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Psycho" (a nice joke since both films are based on infamous serial killer Ed Gein). While Charlie is having difficulties adaptating a strange novel about ghost orchids, Donald writes his screenplay in a jiffy and sells it. His inspiration is a lecture given by Robert McKee (Brain Cox), a real-life lecturer of screenwriting. McKee's speech underlines the fact that real life has enough tragedies to justify dramatic license in a screenplay - this is about as truthful an assertion on life imitates art as you can imagine.

"Adaptation" has an erratic time frame that flashes back and forth yet its continuity makes dramatic sense. We see the tumultuous agony of Kaufman's writings and his growing fascination with the writer Susan. Kaufman is a shy, reclusive man but he also tries to get a waitress to go with him to an orchid show! Then we flash three years earlier to Susan, a New Yorker magazine writer who travels to Florida to research her book on orchids. She meets and falls for John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an expert on orchids who illegally steals them from protected preserves with the help of Indian labor. Whether Susan really cares about orchids or not is not the issue - she is taken with the man who is so passionate about his work.

I have still not dissected "Adaptation" completely because the film works on many levels, and yet there is so much humanity and interest in every character. These characters breathe by their innermost desires, and this is one of those rare films that works because you have no clue where their desires will take them. Charlie Kaufman seems to have an aversion to his brother's screenplay and the teachings of McKee, yet he eventually finds that they are both the fuel he needs to write his screenplay. So we see Charlie and Donald at odds in their work and lifestyles, Susan at odds with her article that becomes a book and her own life thanks to a rude awakening by Laroche, and the screenplay of "The Orchid Thief" which is often the very movie we are watching. Fans of "Being John Malkovich" may be aghast to explain the oddity of this film since reality and fiction are not easily delineated. Naturally, that is what it makes it so much fun to watch.

Nicolas Cage has not seemed as lively or as assured on screen in some time, and gives us two distinctive, excellent performances. Charlie and Donald could not be more opposite from each other - one is loose and limber, the other fat and aggravated. Meryl Streep has given one of the best performances of her career as the breezy, insular Susan - her unhappiness with her own life becomes clear implicitly. Whenever Streep spoke on screen or when we hear her voiceover as she reads from her article, I was spellbound as I was through most of the film. Absorbing and poetic describe Streep to a tee. As for Chris Cooper, he proves to be one of the most charismatic and chameolonic of all character actors - his Laroche is a real change-of-pace from his more serious work and a welcome relief.

"Adaptation" loses its footing somewhat during the climax. It ends with an epiphany, the very same kind of conclusion that Charlie Kaufman apparently hates in all movies where characters change thanks to life-affirming, positive decisions that lead to redemption. I might have preferred something more oddball and offbeat. Then again, who knows if this is Charlie's own comment on Hollywood via his screenplay, or real-life playing itself out or not.

Copyright 2003 Jerry Saravia

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