United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Judy Greer, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, based on "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean
A few years ago, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman was given the job of adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction book, "The Orchid Thief," into a motion picture script. Although Kaufman found the principal character of the book, John Laroche, to have cinematic potential, he was at a loss how to effect the book-to-screenplay transformation. Eventually, he decided to wander off in some very strange directions, writing himself into the script and really only using "The Orchid Thief" as a jumping-off point. The movie, as it turns out, is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, who is given the job of adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction book, "The Orchid Thief," into a motion picture script. Although Kaufman finds the principal character to have cinematic potential, he is at a loss how to effect the book-to-screenplay transformation. Eventually, he decides to wander off in some very strange directions, writing himself into the script and really only using "The Orchid Thief" as a jumping-off point.
There is a concept in mathematics called "recursion." Kaufman and director Spike Jonze have apparently discovered the cinematic equivalent with Adaptation, an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent. Regardless of whether you appreciate the movie or not, it's likely to stay with you. An hour after seeing Adaptation, I was still wondering exactly what the hell I had seen and whether I liked it or not.
Adaptation stars Nicolas Cage in a dual role as Kaufman and his fictitious brother, Donald. Meryl Streep is Susan Orlean, the writer of "The Orchid Thief;" Chris Cooper is Laroche; Brian Cox is Robert McKee, a real-life lecturer about the art of screenplay writing; and Tilda Swinton is Valerie, the one who commissions Kaufman to write the adaptation of the book. The film flips back and forth across time, alternating between the "present," in which Kaufman is trying to write the screenplay, and three years in the past, when the events recounted in "The Orchid Thief" are taking place. There are also various flashbacks and even an excursion to pre-historic times. Certain events take place on the set of Jonze and Kaufman's previous collaboration, Being John Malkovich, allowing actors like Malkovich and Catherine Keener to make cameos.
The title of Adaptation doesn't only refer to what Kaufman is doing to Orlean's book. It is also meant in the Darwinian sense - that humans adapt to circumstances. The movie is certainly as offbeat as Being John Malkovich, although it is neither as funny nor as accessible (if, indeed, Malkovich can be considered to be "accessible"). Adaptation has a serious point or two to divulge. In particular, it's about the importance of passion in every endeavor. Laroche's passion is orchids. Orlean's one great need in life is to feel passion about something. And Kaufman desperately wants to write something original, not generic or derivative. The movie also takes great pains to skewer the script-by-numbers mentality of Hollywood. The final 15 minutes represent a parody of how things would have concluded had Kaufman followed the screenwriter's Bible.
One intriguing aspect of Adaptation is how Kaufman portrays himself – as a fat, balding, aging man with such a severe case of self-doubt that he can't bring himself to approach a woman. In reality, Kaufman is nothing like his on-screen counterpart, nor does he have a twin brother. (Donald Kaufman, who is given co-credit for the script, is entirely a figment of the real Kaufman's imagination.) I would be interested to have a psychologist view this movie and give an opinion of the man who wrote it.
The movie comes across as chaotic, which I'm sure is intentional. With the multiple storylines, there's too much going on, and this damages Adaptation's structure. Jonze does his best to bring a kind of order to the proceedings, but there are times when things get away from him. And there are instances when the movie comes across as being a little too clever (such as when McKee's character insists that several techniques prominently employed by Jonze, such as a voiceover, have no place in any film). I can't imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.