"Hilarious, even if you left your Irony Decoder Ring at home"
Dir. Spike Jonze; writ. Susan Orlean (novel), Charlie Kaufman; feat. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox, Cara Seymour, Maggie Gyllenhaal (R)
FADE IN. We see John DeFore, a 30-ish, disheveled film critic, hunched over a laptop in his hopelessly cluttered bedroom. `Casting note: We have to try and make this guy palatable — maybe Cusack, but not looking ugly like he did in that Malkovich movie.` He is staring at a blank screen, head in hands, muttering to himself.
DeFore: How the hell am I supposed to write about this movie? National magazines have been dissecting it for a month already. Smart people read this paper, don't they? They must be sick to death of hearing about a screenwriter who, instead of writing a movie based on The Orchid Thief, writes about his own desperate attempt to turn the decidedly un-Hollywood story into a Major Motion Picture. I'm pathetic. If I didn't work in such a backwoods town, I could have written about this when The New York Times did. Hasn't a nation of film writers already approached this fascinating movie from every possible angle? Sheesh — some of them have even stolen the film's big gimmick, writing about themselves instead of reviewing the damned.
At least I came to my senses before I mimicked screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and invented a twin brother for myself, like the guy in Film Comment did. The trouble is, a critic who thinks Adaptation is brilliant has a lot of similarities to the screenwriter, and I don't just mean chronic self-consciousness and a tendency to sweat at inappropriate times. We are both trying to steer an audience into appreciating a work of art from a certain angle.
In the film, Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage, who hasn't been anywhere near this funny in a movie since the late '80s) is immobilized by the challenge of movie-ifying a book whose ideas — the near-infinite varieties of orchids, self-invention, long bouts of introspection triggered by a desire "to care about something passionately" — could never be worked into the car chases and shoot-outs of a conventional Hollywood film.
The upper-case, meta-movie Joke of the film — the one that critics are supposed to set up — is that, two-thirds of the way in, Kaufman figures out how to do just that: Adaptation veers into a world of sex, drugs, guns, and hungry alligators (or are they crocodiles?) Whether this final half hour is a masterstroke or a cynical cop-out is the question keeping the film alive in the minds of so many film writers. Yours truly leans more toward the former view than the latter, but making a case for that view would require giving too much away here.
Fortunately, there are so many lower-case, no-dissertation-required jokes here that the movie is a must-see even if you hate the way it ends. Even without multiple layers of irony, the predicament of the twin Kaufmans (both played by Cage) is hilarious: Charlie is relentlessly serious, an in-demand writer despite being the kind of person from whom Tinseltown success usually runs screaming; Donald is a shallow goof who keeps stumbling into good fortune. While Charlie stares into the abyss, Donald blithely decides to become a screenwriter — after a few classes with a bellowing Brian Cox, he inadvertently sums up the whole movie to his brother: Repeating Cox's truism that every writer has a genre, he declares: "My genre's 'thriller.' What's yours?"
(A certain sort of viewer will conclude that Charlie and Don are the same person. But that's fodder for another conversation.)
As in Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze proves ideally equipped to visualize Kaufman's world. Adaptation isn't as surreal as its predecessor, but Jonze makes the screenplay's abrupt jumps through time and space (from Charlie's bedroom to the beginning of the world, to three years ago in Florida, to two years before that, et cetera) flow as if they were your stream of consciousness, not the writer's. And with his makeup team, it is clear Jonze understands whatever weird fetish Kaufman has for horrible hair: Cage's rusty Brillo pad will live in the pantheon of Bad Hair Days alongside Cusack and Diaz in Malkovich and the hirsute stars of Human Nature.
CLOSE UP: Suddenly, DeFore's eyes widen in desperation... VOICEOVER: I can't believe this! I've run out of room and haven't even mentioned Meryl Streep or Chris Cooper, who make The Orchid Thief part of the movie fascinating enough to compete with all the meta-movie nonsense! I haven't warned sensitive readers about all the scenes of Kaufman jerking off, or said how cool it is that the silliest characters in the movie are the ones who say the wisest things. I could have used that to make another random, unnecessary joke about George Bush. I'm so fucking pathetic.