Adaptation is the type of movie that, when you think about it too much, begins to fall apart in ways that you don't like.
Charlie Kaufman, who gave us the genius conceit of Being John Malkovich, has written another movie about famous people. Only this time, rather than spinning it out carefully, he's awkwardly threaded the celebrities - and the world in which they live - into the first half of his film like objects on a shishkebab. Beginning with a portrayal of his own struggles as a screenwriter after Malkovich, trying to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean for a film, Adaptation intercuts sequences of neurotic, depressed Kaufman with Orlean's story of orchid poacher John Laroche.
The switches between the two story lines are sudden and random. However, even in these early truncated scenes, the performances are great. Much of the beginning of the film is spent on Kaufman and his mildly antagonistic relationship with his twin brother Donald, who has also decided to become a screenwriter. Nicholas Cage, as both Charlie and Donald, is brilliant, managing among many great feats to distinguish each of the twins without resorting to strikingly different appearances and mannerisms. Forget Orlean and Laroche at the beginning - their story is initially about as insipid and labored as Orlean's book. Later, however, Meryl Streep, as Orlean, and especially Chris Cooper as Laroche, are wildly hilarious, playing their characters under the surface even when they rocket into the stratosphere, surprisingly, at the end.
But mainly, the strength of Adaptation rests on the technical work of director Spike Jonze and his crew. The tone of the film never once gives away the jokes - if indeed it is joking at all. Is this a movie about trying to make a meaningful movie that ends up satirizing the Hollywood story-mill? Or is it an exploration of the ability of melodrama and clich & eacute; to be more powerfully sincere, and filmable, than sensitive and subtle filmmaking? Jonze never decides, but he never loses control either, allowing both possibilities their maximum bloom. His editor, Eric Zumbrunnen, and composer, Carter Burwell, also deserve special mention. Their work keeps the transitions in the film from seeming jarring, and they make the experience of watching Adaptation engaging and fun, and better than the film itself. So go ahead and watch it. Just don't think about it too hard.
Publication date: 05/29/03