By Shawn McKenzie 12/23/2002
The team of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze is slowly starting to become the most unique movie-making team in Hollywood. Being John Malkovich was very weird because it told a fictional tale of people living out fantasies through the body of a real actor. If you thought that was weird, their new movie, Adaptation, blends reality and fiction even further.
Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is a screenwriter with very low self-esteem. The Hollywood community has lauded him for his Academy Award nominated first screenplay, Being John Malkovich, but he is having trouble with his follow-up script. His latest project, adapting author Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) novel, The Orchid Thief, into a screenplay, is giving him a lot of stress. To make matters worse, he is getting pressure by studio executive Valerie (Tilda Swinton) and his agent, Marty (Ron Livingston), to finish it as soon as possible. Making matters even worse than that is that his more confident twin brother, Donald (Cage also), has decided to take up screenwriting too. Donald’s style of screenwriting clashes with Charlie’s style, because Donald’s style seems to be too clichéd and generic. Donald thinks he has got a knack for writing, after having gone to classes by screenwriting expert Robert McKee (Brian Cox.) After starting on his own screenplay, a thriller he calls The 3, it seems to flow out of him. Donald not only has more writing confidence than Charlie, but he also has no problem with women, whether it's Amelia (Cara Seymour) or make-up artist Caroline (Maggie Gyllenhaal.) As Charlie attempts to write this story about orchids that he believes isn't filmable, we see flashbacks of Susan at work at the New Yorker writing her book. We also see flashbacks even further back where she interviews and eventually falls in love with her subject, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the orchid thief from the title. Time is running out, so a desperate Charlie tries a variety of ways of finishing his script, ranging from finally meeting Susan to actually writing himself and his brother into the story. He finds himself breaking every rule he thinks makes a good screenwriter.
How is Adaptation weirder than Being John Malkovich? First, Charlie does end up writing himself and his brother into his screenplay, just like the screenwriter in the movie does. Kaufman’s obvious frustration must have drove him crazy, because he ended up with one of the most creative screenplays in years just by adapting not only a novel, but the actual process of adapting a novel. The movie was so…about itself, from the movie rights optioning process to everyone wondering who was going to play them in the movie. It was so creepy in its self-referencing that I started wondering who was going to play me going to the theater to see the movie! Second, Kaufman went to the hilt towards fictionalizing real people, but also flipped that around by giving real credit to fictional people. What am I talking about? Adaptation is credited to Charlie and Donald Kaufman. The thing is…Donald Kaufman does not and has never existed! The screenplay was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, which might be the first time a fictional character has ever gotten a real nomination for an award (it will be really trippy if "Donald" gets an Oscar nomination.) I would tell you other ways in which Kaufman carries out this weird world of reality, but it would give away the ending (let’s just say, stay until the end of the credits and read some of the thank you’s, quotes, and tributes.)
Okay, aside from the head trip this movie gives you, how is it otherwise? It is very good. Cage is really good as a man who you could almost say is suffering from a multiple personality disorder (if it weren’t for the fact that other people interact with both "brothers.") Streep, as usual, is excellent, and I wondered how she felt portraying a real person, but in a way that obviously isn’t like the real person.
This movie unfortunately is going to confuse a lot of people, especially people unfamiliar with Kaufman. I highly recommend watching Being John Malkovich before seeing this movie. That way you will better understand the movie-making style that you will see in Adaptation. Also, keep in mind that, though this is a portrayal of actual events, many of them are obviously fictional (I think you will know which ones.) Finally, keep in mind that "Donald" is not a real person. Think of him as the self-assured side of Charlie.
Adaptation is one of the weirdest, most creative movies about movie making that I’ve ever seen. I would put it up with the highly creative Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as one of the best mixes of fiction and reality ever filmed. (In case you forgot, New Nightmare was about the fictional Freddy Krueger entering the real world and killing off the creators and actors from his previous films.) If you go into the movie with the knowledge of what is real and what isn’t, I think you will really love this film.
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