Review by Dustin Putman
4 stars out of 4
Well, it took twelve months, but a motion picture has finally been
released in 2002 that is as audaciously original as 2001's "Donnie
Darko," "Mulholland Drive," and "Moulin Rouge." "Adaptation," directed
by Spike Jonze (1999's "Being John Malkovich") and written by Charlie
Kaufman, is a mind-blowing experience in more ways than one, a cinematic
treasure so daring, so unpredictable, so unconventionally brilliant,
and so purely entertaining that it is a miracle it got made in the
first place. For those who thought "Being John Malkovich" was "out-there,"
they haven't seen anything yet.
Several years ago, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was hired to adapt
Susan Orlean's non-fiction book, "The Orchid Thief," into a film,
only to discover that a faithful rendering would not be cinematic.
The book, based on Orlean's article in New Yorker magazine, tells
of John Laroche, a man so in love with the rare Orchid flower that
he risked being arrested by taking them from the swamps of a national
park in the Everglades. When Kaufman's attempts in adapting this tale
failed, he found himself using the basis of Orlean's work as a jumping-off
point to write a different sort of film that included Orlean and Kaufman
himself as the central characters.
Director Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" is the wondrous result of Kaufman's
struggle. Although far from the truth, in the screenwriter's mind
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is overweight, balding, and painfully
introverted. When he is commissioned by Valerie (Tilda Swinton) to
adapt "The Orchid Thief," Charlie finds himself with a terrible predicament
and a nightmarish case of writer's block. No matter how much he studies
and digs within his source material, he cannot find a visual, interesting
way to write the script. Not helping matters in Charlie's more assured
twin brother, Donald (Nicolas Cage), who is writing his own screenplay:
a conventional serial killer thriller called "The 3" that is immediately
picked up by the studio currently in production on Charlie's "Being
John Malkovich" (Jonze, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, and John Cusack make cameos).
In an underlying plot set three years earlier, Susan Orlean (Meryl
Streep) has begun researching her article (and later her book) by
interviewing John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Susan, who is married but
unhappy, is drawn to Laroche's inspirational way of looking at Orchids,
and realizes that she has never had anything in her own life that
has inspired her in such a way. When Valerie proposes to option the
film rights to her book, Susan is thrilled, not knowing that her unknown
screenwriter, Charlie, has formed a heartbreaking crush on her.
Believe it or not, this is merely the set-up for what is to follow
in "Adaptation," a one-of-a-kind creation that twists and turns, building
layer upon layer, time frame upon time frame, and fact within fiction,
into a richly drawn, unforgettable tapestry about not letting life
pass you by. More than that, even, screenwriter Kaufman has concocted
one of the most truthful and searing portrayals of writing and moviemaking
that has ever graced the silver screen. When Charlie sucks up his
pride and agrees to attend a screenwriter seminar with author Robert
McKee (Brian Cox), the result is both painfully honest and cathartic.
The screenplay, which is also credited to Donald Kaufman (a fictional
creation of Charlie's), is startling in its multiple dimensions of
the human beings on display and their inner struggles. As Charlie
grapples with his writing assignment, he continuously strikes out
with the women he has grown to care about because of his unrelenting
shyness. Meanwhile, Susan Orlean's entire outlook on her life changes
when she comes to the scary insight that she has never felt completely
passionate about anything before. She yearns to have the feelings
that John Laroche has, and is uncontrollably drawn to him because of this.
The trio of central performances are nothing short of incendiary.
It has taken him seven years, but Nicolas Cage (2002's "Windtalkers")
has finally found a marvelous role worthy of the promise made by 1995's
"Leaving Las Vegas." Cage dually stars Charlie and Donald, and he
is so good in his facial expressions and body language that you forget
almost immediately they are both being played by the same actor, and
accept them as two completely separate individuals. Making an indelible
return to the big screen after a three-year hiatus, Meryl Streep (1998's
"One True Thing") is phenomenally powerful and even sometimes extremely
funny as Susan Orlean. In one felt swoop, Streep reminds the viewer
of why she is considered one of the greatest actresses of all time.
Finally, Chris Cooper (1999's "American Beauty") develops John Laroche's
initial appearance of being a sort of backwoods redneck into a kind,
intelligent, and charming man with more on his mind than meets the eye.
Surrounding Cage, Streep, and Cooper are a bevy of superlative supporting
performances. Cara Seymour (2002's "Gangs of New York") is touching
as Amelia, Charlie's would-be girlfriend who clearly would reciprocate
Charlie's feelings for her if only he had the courage to express them.
Judy Greer (2001's "The Wedding Planner"), as a diner waitress who
relates to Charlie through her love of orchids; Maggie Gyllenhaal
(2001's "Donnie Darko"), as Donald's vivacious girlfriend whom he
meets on the set of "Being John Malkovich;" and Brian Cox (2002's
"The Ring"), as brutally candid seminar speaker Robert McKee, are
equally fabulous with only a handful of scenes each.
"Adaptation" is the rarest of cinematic treasures--a movie that engulfs
the viewers in characters, stories, and complexities they have never
before seen. Almost immediately beginning with a mesmerizing fast-motion
depiction of the creation of the world since the dawn of time, and
concluding with a corkscrew of a final act that is as surprising and
unforeseen as it is devastating, director Spike Jonze once and for
all places himself within an exclusive group of modern filmmakers
as great as any working today. Endlessly enlightening, always fascinating,
and nothing short of miraculous, to see "Adaptation" is to live, see,
breathe, and feel in an entirely different way than any other motion
picture released this year has offered.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman