The already celebrated meta-comedy Adaptation (Columbia) tells the twisty story of an up-and-coming but painfully insecure screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), who is hired to adapt a sprawling nonfiction book called The Orchid Thief by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep)—which is in part about Orlean’s struggle to tell the story of her title character, a Floridian named John Laroche (Chris Cooper)—who is obsessed with domesticating an endangered wild orchid. Creatively blocked and choked by self-loathing, Kaufman becomes obsessed with Orlean and decides to turn his screenplay into the story of an up-and-coming but painfully insecure screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who is hired to adapt a sprawling nonfiction book called The Orchid Thief by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean—which is in part about Orlean’s struggle to tell the story of etc., etc.
It is possible, stepping one level back, that the movie accurately represents the story of the up-and-coming but painfully insecure screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who was hired to adapt a sprawling nonfiction book called The Orchid Thief etc., etc. But it’s equally possible that the real Kaufman didn’t actually whack off to the book-jacket photo of the real Susan Orlean or shadow her all over New York and is just spinning an outrageous yarn. Adaptation has so many interwoven strands of reality and fiction that the film itself is like a strange new orchid breed—and one that is frankly intoxicated by its own vapors.
A lot of critics are similarly intoxicated: My bet is that Adaptation will beat out Far From Heaven—another movie that’s partly about movies—as the most extravagantly praised of the year. And there is much to be said in its favor. A meditation on storytelling (and writer’s block), the film will do for screenwriting what Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) did for directing: It makes a brilliant show of eating itself.
Kaufman (the screenwriter, not the character) has shrewdly given his schlumpy hero a neat foil—a twin brother and wannabe screenwriter named Donald (also Cage) who preaches the gospel of the narrative-structure guru Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox). While Charlie righteously blathers to a sexily elegant film executive (Tilda Swinton) that he has no intention of turning Orlean’s book about flowers and Florida swamps into a movie with conventional conflicts and characters who have “arcs” and “grow and change,” Donald is busy getting laid (courtesy Maggie Gyllenhaal), flirting with Catherine Keener (on the set of Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich , shooting concurrently), and penning a wildly commercial thriller about a deconstructionist serial-killer.
In an almost parallel plot, set three years earlier, Orlean chases the orchid thief Laroche through Florida, trying to fathom his obsession with orchids and other rare plants—to understand why he and a posse of Seminoles have taken to plundering the Fakahatchee swamp at considerable risk to their health, freedom, and sanity. She, too, is in search of a way into her subject and finally develops a Larochian obsession to see the maddeningly ephemeral “ghost orchid” in bloom.
So “Charlie Kaufman” struggles to find his story; “Susan Orlean” struggles to find her story; both resolve their struggles by making themselves part of their stories; and then, in the last half-hour, Adaptation settles, without fanfare or ironic overemphasis, into something even more dizzyingly complicated. The movie’s strands begin to intertwine, it changes shape, and some strange hybrid of truth, fiction, the avant-garde, and Hollywood begins to bloom. The twin Kaufmans have merged and “Charlie” has adapted to Hollywood—much like the flowers that survive on the medians of Los Angeles’ smog-choked avenues. (They are the movie’s final shot.)
Does this “adaptation” to Hollywood moviemaking represent failure or success? I don’t have a clue. As in the end of Malkovich—directed, like Adaptation, by Spike Jonze—the movie wants to have it both ways: to be swooningly romantic and brusquely cynical. And maybe that ambiguity accounts for why I’m not turning cartwheels over Adaptation as energetically as my colleagues. Part of me—and I’m thinking aloud here, I’ve likely been infected by Kaufman’s comic self-consciousness, and also by his meta-comic impulse to draw attention to that self-consciousness, and probably also by his meta-meta-comic impulse to draw attention to drawing attention to his self-consciousness—that—that—
Part of me wonders if this movie, so full of self-loathing yet so pleased with its own cleverness, isn’t a lively tap dance over a void—if Kaufman didn’t settle for being recursive because he blew the adaptation.
But then, of course, he anticipates this criticism, and has “Charlie” worry aloud that his approach is “self-indulgent, narcissistic, solipsistic, pathetic” and that he “sucks.” How can you criticize a movie for its failings when the movie beats you to the punch—and even punches itself harder than you would?
Kaufman did pick up on Orlean’s charming talent for putting herself at the center of her stories, half in and half out, figuring out what she thinks as she goes along. (He has also picked up on her ambition to pack everything in: Only someone with ready access to New Yorker fact-checkers could develop a style so lush with names, dates, and factoids.) But the book is rich in potential plotlines Kaufman let fall by the wayside—stories of rare-species fanatics who have a near-organic connection to the strange, teeming state of Florida, where the air is thick with the aroma of growth and decay and the drama between overdevelopment and entropy is played out with big doses of violence.
Jonze has not directed Adaptation in the same searching spirit in which it was written, and some will find his breezily confident style a blessed counterpoint to the screenplay’s convulsions. Perversely, perhaps, I think it’s a little too smooth, too facile. But I could be wrong: Jonze encourages in the actors a giddy screwball spirit. Good news: Meryl Streep didn’t study the actual Orlean and try to reproduce her mannerisms. So she doesn’t overdefine her character. She has a spontaneous—and sexy—rapport with the marvelous Chris Cooper, who smiles to reveal two surviving front teeth that are like an angry bowling split. A pretty actress named Judy Greer has a couple of knockout scenes as an over-attentive, then over-repulsed waitress. And Brian Cox is howlingly right as McKee—the mixture of fierce insight and boozy bullshit is exact. Somehow Kaufman manages to flout all of McKee’s rules—among them, never use voice-over or a deus ex machina—and let the man keep his stature and even his wisdom.
It’s a shame that the tall actors who scramble to play the short Kaufman’s alter egos never come off too well: John Cusack in Malkovich and Tim Robbins in Human Nature (2001) both receded along with their characters. And Nicolas Cage doesn’t transcend the character here, either. He has been given kinky, thinning hair, and he must have had his own “sweat girl” to dab on the perspiration at regular intervals. He breathes with his mouth. He pulls his chin down to the level of his shoulders. But it’s no use. He looks like a cocky tall guy trying to act like a short mouth-breather. I can’t wait to see Kaufman’s upcoming adaptation of Chuck Barris’ autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: With luck, this will be the first Kaufman protagonist who doesn’t make a fetish of his own impotence.
It wouldn’t matter as much if Kaufman didn’t have a talent potentially as great as that of Albert Brooks, Christopher Durang, and maybe even John Guare. Compare Adaptation to Woody Allen’s lame Hollywood Ending, and you can see that Kaufman is Allen’s true successor—formed by Allen but primed to carry the torch a little farther into the swamp of his own neuroses. Now he just has to stop making such a song-and-dance of his own self-hatred and, for crying out loud, adapt.