Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox, Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ron Livingston
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images)
Running Time: 1:54
Release Date: 12/6/02 (limited); 1/10/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
As I sit here in the process of writing this sentence, I realize that I may be perceived as attempting to write one of those clever pieces that tries to imitate the style of the film at hand. Now I imagine someone taking this admission as another way of trying to be clever. But then isn’t it the task of a film critic or movie reviewer or cinema analyst (whatever you feel like calling someone like me) not only to express one’s opinion about a film but also to try to communicate the experience of watching the same film? Trying to convey the experience of watching Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is a difficult undertaking. First of all, to assign Jonze possession of the film is misleading. Pretty much all credit for the film’s success belongs to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (credited with his brother Donald Kaufman, an entity who exists only in the film), who has written one of the most inventive and truly original screenplays since his previous one for Being John Malkovich. To do the experience a great disservice, let me sum the whole thing up by calling it—for better or worse—the ultimate inside joke of post-modern filmmaking.
Nicolas Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman in the film, who is just coming to grips with the success of his first screenplay for Being John Malkovich and realizing that the screenwriter is probably the least popular person on a film set. However, the prestige associated with his screenplay does land him another job when a Hollywood suit named Valerie (Tilda Swinton) commissions him to adapt Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) non-fiction novel The Orchid Thief, about an orchid poacher in Florida named John Laroche (Chris Cooper). The book doesn’t translate to film too well, which is just the beginning of Charlie’s problems. His twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) is lounging around his house and has recently announced his desire to become a screenwriter just like his brother. They have two entirely different outlooks on the creative process, and Donald’s ease in writing his own material reflects Charlie’s inability to write his own. Meanwhile, Charlie is also struggling with himself—his looks, his ego, his sudden fame, his failure with women. And at some point, all of these insecurities begin popping up in his screenplay.
Essentially, the movie is the movie within the movie. We’re watching Charlie Kaufman write the script for the movie we’re watching. There are two key events that are central to understanding the structure of the film. The first is when Charlie decides the screenplay is about himself, and the second is when he attends a screenwriting seminar hosted by Robert McKee (Brian Cox). The first moment solidifies that the film we’re watching is the film he’s writing; the second sets up the events leading to the conclusion. Kaufman truly is the star of this film, no matter which way you look at it. The movie is about writing, and it really captures the essence of the creative process. It starts of slow and unfocused, which I believe is the point, as that’s how Kaufman’s experience begins. Once the film starts its journey into the inner-workings of its structure, it becomes something special. All the while, the film works as a sometimes uncomfortably honest but always fascinating look into the mind of Kaufman. Once we know that Donald doesn’t exist, we understand his role as a doppelganger. Donald represents the screenwriter’s itch to write something sellable (the ending insinuates that Kaufman has scratched it).
Nicolas Cage creates two distinct characters for Charlie and Donald through vocal quality and physicality. It’s one of those deceptively simple performances, because Cage is so convincing as each of these two personalities, we forget about the craft that’s apparent in creating and distinguishing each of them. On a technical level, the effects implemented to place Cage with himself onscreen are seamless. We really begin to understand Kaufman as a human being and an artist, which is important to all the film’s humor. There is an overwhelming number of inside jokes, but they’re all somehow important to understand the structure of the movie, which is, as stated before, an inside joke itself. The more one knows about basic dramatic structure and the so-called principles of dramatic writing, the more relevant the film will be. Once we understand what Kaufman’s doing with this film, it becomes fairly obvious how it will end, although what happens in the process is still hilarious and surprising. One of the more amusing bits is in the casting of Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, which is really an inspirational move. Streep, always Acting her way through a role, and Cooper, always disappearing into his roles, make their sections really play out like a very Hollywood melodrama.
Part of me wants to acknowledge that Kaufman’s script is inherently lazy, but then I think of the inclusion of Donald as a second-self, the self-critique of its laziness, and the way in which the finale turns the movie into a movie instead of just a filmed script, and I know it’s more or less the work of a genius. Adaptation as a film is not at that same level, mostly because its twists—while certainly forcing us to redefine the film as it progresses—are missing a sense of discovery (the element that made Being John Malkovich a great film). Yet this is another unique and sometimes wholly energizing work from a most promising talent.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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