“Adaptation” Aug. 2003

I recently realized that almost all of the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

Adaptation

04The image of the Hollywood screenwriter has changed over the years. The brainy misanthropes of the 40s (Chandler, Brackett & Wilder) became the witty pop-culture geeks of the 90s (Tarantino, Kevin Williamson). Charlie Kaufman, the writer responsible for the ground-breaking comedy Being John Malkovich, is one of the few American scenarists who understands and appreciates both sensibilities, which would seem to make him a screenwriter for the new century.

Or maybe it doesn’t. In his latest script, Adaptation, which, like Malkovich, has been been brought to life by director Spike Jonze, Kaufman presents himself as the most self-conscious scribbler since St. Augustine. Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman with faint hair, a thick gut and a sweaty complexion, and then adds insult to insult by also portraying his twin brother, Donald, who, on the heels of the success of Malkovich, decides he can do that, too.

Where Charlie is pathetic and ruminative, Donald is outgoing and shallow. It’s a contrast that is reflected in their clothing (flannel vs. leather), as well as in their subject matter. Donald is going to write yet another serial killer potboiler, while Charlie has taken a commission to adapt New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, for the screen, a decision he regrets even before he accepts the assignment. Sitting in a restaurant with the producer of the film (Tilda Swinton), Charlie panics in the face of her calm, self-assured manner. “You want to make it into a movie?” he blurts, equally impressed with her courage and appalled at his willingness to take a job he knows can’t be done, at least not properly. The book, a journalistic meditation on the history of orchids and the American love of outlaws, is, as Charlie later describes it, “that sprawling New Yorker shit,” and thus impervious to adaptation.

His self-doubt turns into writer’s block. Charlie doesn’t flip out as dangerously as did the eponymous writer in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, but his desperation is acute, resulting in fever dreams about his own insignificance in the scheme of things. As he proved in Malkovich, Jonze has a unique talent for converting the indescribable into the prosaic, and he establishes a style that conveys Charlie’s enveloping inability to discern reality from imagination.

Donald, in the meantime, is studying Robert McKee’s tips for screenwriters (“God help you if you use voice-over”) and picking up girls with the insouciance of Colin Farrell. (Charlie can’t even get to first base with his own girlfriend.) He’s flying through his script, and not only finishes it before Charlie gets to page two of his own, but sells it for an unholy sum. If this competing-brother story were all that the movie had going for it, Adaptation would still be one of the funniest comedies of recent memory, but Kaufman also incorporates Charlie’s non-starting screenplay into his own.

Charlie admires Susan Orlean, but can’t get up the nerve to meet her face-to-face. He therefore makes her up. Played by Meryl Streep, Orlean hunts down the ornery, toothless orchid thief, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), in Florida for her New Yorker feature, and Charlie envisions their relationship as something other than that of journalist and subject. Charlie channels his own insecurity into Orlean on the page. The self-confidence that seems so apparent in her beautiful, measured prose is challenged by this scraggly autodidact, who goes from one obsessive hobby to another as a means of constantly reinventing himself.

Streep won the critical kudos and Cooper the Oscar, but it’s Cage who gives the movie its indelible comic soul. An actor who squandered his early reputation as a true original on a decade-long run of stick-man roles in Hollywood blockbusters, Cage hasn’t been this inventive since his own Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. When Charlie and Donald are both on the screen, one forgets that Cage is playing them both, he’s that immersed in their respective idiosyncrasies.

As with Malkovich, this meta-movie faces a test: How do you end a story that does not follow the normal logic of narrative films? In answering that question, Kaufman tests the audience, too, with a slam-bang ending that is either proof Kaufman himself has gone off the deep end or a cosmic goof on all the high-minded hijinks that went before. In other words, he’s either the witty geek or the brainy misanthrope–or both. The only thing that’s certain is that, unlike “Charlie,” he’s got a lot of nerve.

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