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Adaptation By Matt Singer
In the fleeting moments where I consider writing stories or scripts, I invariably think about one of my favorite subjects; the act of artistic creation, and especially the absence of it, also known as writer’s block. Since this is one of the main themes of Adaptation, you can safely assume I was captivated by this absolutely fascinating new film.
If you’ve missed hearing about this film’s oddball concept, I’ll do my best to explain an idea that is, in many ways, difficult to encapsulate. The protagonist of Adaptation is also its writer (or co-writer, depending on who you believe), screenwriter Charles Kaufman (played here by Nicolas Cage). Given the task of adapting author Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay (a task the real life Kaufman was given), he struggles with writer’s block until he realizes what’s missing from his script - himself. As Kaufman sweats it out, we meet Orlean (Meryl Streep in the film) and the eponymous thief John LaRoche (Chris Cooper). LaRoche is a strange and very interesting fellow, missing his teeth and pontificating at length on flowers and Internet porn. It’s great stuff, but it’s not a movie. “There’s no story!” the screenwriter shouts to his agent. What’s a Kaufman to do?
This stuff could be flagrantly self-indulgent (as character Charles points out in a perspiration-laced rant), but Kaufman and Jonze are far too talented for that. Racing from the dawn of time and back, Adaptation is a wild, mesmerizing mess of a movie. Here is a film that condemns violence, sex, and conflict in conventional Hollywood movies, and then throws all of these elements into the mix anyway. Of course, this movie is satirizing these things by including them.
Or is it? This movie gleefully changes moods, settings, locations, time periods, and genres so frequently its difficult to get a handle on what its making fun of and when. For example, Charles is constantly mocking the teachings of screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played terrifically by Brian Cox), demonizing the guy as a leader of a cult, but when Kaufman gets to talk to him, he comes off as a compassionate, kind human being. Above all, this film is not willing to fit into an audience’s expectations and desires for structure and convention. Anything, and I mean anything can and does happen in this film. And that is wonderfully exciting.
The three central performances are all Oscar-worthy, though I suspect only Chris Cooper will get a supporting nomination for his almost unrecognizable turn as LaRoche. While he’s good, Nicholas Cage gives the most impressive performance, as both Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. Not only does he create two rich and distinct characters, he is so good that you often forget that it is only one actor doing both parts. For the most part, the film is free of those crummy tricks used to make one actor look like his own twin. Cage almost has me convinced that he really is two different people, one who makes films like Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona and another who did Con Air and Snake Eyes.
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Adaptation’s ending is already dividing audiences, and I can certainly understand people’s problems with it. With such warm and likable characters, Adaptation appears to be headed towards a conclusion that would leave audiences walking out all warm and fuzzy. Instead of continuing on this logical path, the film veers off onto unexpected paths, as Orlean heads to Florida to see LaRoche without informing her husband, and the Kaufman brothers follow her. What ensues is very violent and absurd, as the characters come into conflict in unusual ways. Some have said that this is Kaufman’s satirizing McKee’s need for exactly these elements, and certainly the moment when McKee instructs Kaufman to “find your ending” is an important moment in the film. While I could have enjoyed a more predictable ending, the only thing that didn’t satisfy me about the one Jonze and Kaufman selected was that it made the film’s epilogue slightly hard to swallow, an irony in and of itself since I accept the nonsense that precedes it.
I look forward to seeing this movie again. If any film deserves a premium treatment on DVD it’s this one. I’d love to see multiple commentary tracks (How about one with the real Kaufman, Orlean, and LaRoche watching the film together?), making-of docs, and extensive interviews with the contributors. Adaptation is tough work, but worth the effort in the end. Which is, it seems, exactly what Kaufman would say about his adaptation.