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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
from Film Forum, 12/12/02

Adaptation chronicles the trials of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter in trouble. Kaufman has been assigned to write a big–screen adaptation of a bestselling nonfiction book about flowers—The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Inspired by the book, he wants to craft a beautiful, profound, and poetic screenplay. Instead, he sits and stares, stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is writer's block; the hard place is the movie studio, where executives ask him to spice up the script with action, violence, car chases, romance, and other clichés.

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 Being John Malkovich—and this film. Thus, in some ways, Adaptation is a true story. The real Kaufman, unable to find a way to make The Orchid Thief into a compelling movie, made this movie about his frustrated efforts, and solved his own problem.

Thus it follows that author Susan Orlean (played here by Meryl Streep) is also a real person. Orlean wrote The Orchid Thief based on investigative reporting she published in The New Yorker. It chronicles her interviews with John Laroche (played here by Sam Cooper), a man who got in trouble because of his obsession for finding rare orchids. Orlean uses Laroche's passion as a way to raise questions: Where does passion come from? Is it important? What is wrong with people who don't have passion?

As the film gets more and more outrageous, viewers will wonder just how much the Charlie, Susan, and John of Adaptation resemble the real–life Charlie, Susan, and John. But the twists don't stop there. Don't be fooled by the credits of the film, which claim it is written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman. There is no Donald. The movie's portrayal of Charlie's relationship with his twin brother is a complete fiction. Moreover, I've met the real Charlie Kaufman, and I can attest that neither one of the movie's brothers resemble the real Charlie in personality or appearance.

It's too bad that so much cleverness eventually deteriorates into displays of baser and baser behavior. Just as we saw in Malkovich, Kaufman's characters seem to get more self–absorbed and unpleasant as the story goes on. For all its hilarity, Adaptation portrays life as a maze with no solutions. While our "hero" makes a breakthrough in the final act, his success is clearly portrayed as resorting to cliché, a deeply cynical conclusion.

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, Adaptation's argument that passion is just an evolutionary tool rings false. Kaufman is half–right: Neither movies nor life are completely satisfying if you merely follow the formulas. He is wrong, though, if he means to say that meaningful relationships and art are impossible. Both require selflessness and faith, two traits lacking in all of Kaufman's characters.

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 Adaptation, Kaufman again creates a surreal world that includes wonder and strangeness but is virtually bereft of anything like decency or selflessness. That the movie never removes its tongue from its cheek doesn't make its moral obliviousness less problematic, or the characters' disturbing degeneration less unpleasant."

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 Adaptation ultimately becomes, mainstream critics are so enthusiastic that Oscars for Kaufman and Jonze might be just around the corner. A.O. Scott (The New York Times) writes, "Some may find the ending rushed, inconclusive, or cynical. I thought its lack of easy resolution was proof of the film's haphazard, devil–may–care integrity, and its bow to conventional sentiment a mark of sincerity."

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 Adaptation, for most of its length, is a furious act of rebellion."