- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2002 1 Jan
Kaufman's artistic struggle mirrors his incompetence in human relationships—especially with the opposite sex. Just as he envies other writers' artistry, he envies their intimacies as well. What looks effortless for others turns out to be well nigh impossible. He's not only struggling to adapt a book into a script; he can't adapt to the demands of the most casual conversation, much less get a good date. In the world according to Kaufman, the search for truth, beauty, and love is a maddening—probably futile—task.
The possibility of help comes to Charlie in two ways. First, his brother Donald moves in with him. Donald is a novice screenwriter who spews clichés and formulas all the way to Hollywood success. Charlie can't stand these superficial tactics. But when push comes to shove, Charlie might have to break down and embrace his brother's ways. It's all part of evolution, you see: adapting to survive in harsh conditions.
Playing these fictional twins, Nicolas Cage turns in one (two?) of his most astonishing and hilarious performances. I asked him which brother felt like a better fit for him. "On days when I was playing Donald, I was a bit more tense," he explained. "It was hard for me. I was still in a 'Charlie' corner of my head. It always seemed more difficult … to get rid of the self–critical thing and to really be relaxed, to really detach."
The second source of help for Charlie's "self–critical" psychosis arrives when Donald directs him to the tutelage of Robert McKee (Bryan Cox), a famous screenwriter and teacher. While going to McKee for help is a cliché in itself, it might give Charlie the help he so desperately needs.
Director Spike Jonze directs this strange, unpredictable, explosively funny film and fills it with moments of poignant emotion and inspired zaniness. The twists come so fast and furious it can make you dizzy. For example, the film begins on the set of Jonze's previous film: Being John Malkovich.
Or how about this: Charlie Kaufman, the main character, is a real person. In fact, he wrote
Thus it follows that author Susan Orlean (played here by Meryl Streep) is also a real person. Orlean wrote
As the film gets more and more outrageous, viewers will wonder just how much the Charlie, Susan, and John of
It's too bad that so much cleverness eventually deteriorates into displays of baser and baser behavior. Just as we saw in
When I interviewed Kaufman, he congenially refused to offer any perspective on the disillusionment at the heart of the film. He replied, "I like to hear different interpretations. Our interest is more to create a conversation than to give you any type of conclusion, which I certainly don't have, and it would be presumptuous of me to suggest that I did." That's fine—most artists dislike reducing their work to paraphrase. But the story's insistence that all joys are superficial and temporary will do more to discourage viewers than it will to inspire them. Further,
Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) suffered similar frustrations with the film. He says, "Kaufman writes characters who torture and berate themselves, but never get out of themselves. In
Likewise, Gerri Pare (Catholic News) says, "The film is highly original and engrossing. … But Charlie's whiny character gradually grates on the nerves, his constant insecurities and pathetic self–lacerations making him less sympathetic even as we feel for his desire to do a good job."
As empty as
David Denby (New Yorker) says, "Any screenwriter with intellectual ambition would be frightened by an industry that demands (and pays handsomely for) conventional thinking. The filmmakers are expressing their own anger and ambivalence about the movie business, and