Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Tilda Swinton

Spike Jonze


Charlie and Donald Kaufman

Distributor: Columbia Pictures * 135 minutes
Rated: R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images
  (USA 2002)

Charlie Kaufman's, Hollywood's favorite postmodern pop screenwriter, puts himself front and center in ADAPTATION, his second collaboration with director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). Ostensibly an exploration of creative struggle, Kaufman's script is wildly imaginative but only intermittently entertaining, dredging up troubling questions about artistic responsibility that he ultimately doesn't answer. Although it features great performances and a singularly original premise, in the end ADAPTATION doesn't really satisfy.

I'll wager that you'll never hear a story summation like this again: Kaufman was hired to adapt Susan Orlean's hit bestseller, The Orchid Thief, and found it nigh impossible. So instead, he wrote a screenplay about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) trying to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who can't...and ends up inserting himself and the author into the story instead. Got that?

It's fascinating subject matter to cover if you're a writer, and I am -- Barton Fink remains one of my favorite films in the modern era. I'm fairly certain, however, that the rest of the world may find such creative panic anxiety fairly academic; in the bright light of day, even I realize that Writer's Block is not the stuff of great drama. For ADAPTATION's first half, not much happens besides variations on Kaufman panicking, unable to write or even speak to Orlean about her book.

About halfway through, though, Kaufman's script takes an extraordinary left turn, when the story (and the film) gets 'doctored' by Charlie's twin brother Donald (also played by Cage). It's a masterstroke of writing, and without giving too much away, it both turns ADAPTATION on its head and speaks volumes about the nature of creative process.

It doesn't hurt that ADAPTATION also features some stellar performances, not the least of which is Nicolas Cage's career-rejuvenating turn as the brothers Kaufman. Although Cage has made more bad films (Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds, Captain Correlli's Mandolin) than good, his deft handling of these difficult roles reminds us of the formidable talent he displayed in Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and Leaving Las Vegas. Charlie is a study in self-absorption masquerading as intellectualism, a savage social critic whose favorite topic is himself. Donald, on the other hand, has the joyous exuberance that comes with a complete lack of self-assessment. Together, Cage makes them endearing, poignant, and terribly funny.

Streep, as Orlean, bounces gamely along the treacherous path laid out for her, diving into the character's inconsistencies with gusto. As her orchid thief, Chris Cooper shows what those who have seen him in American Beauty, Lone Star, and October Sky already know -- that he may just be the best character actor working today. It's too bad that director Jonze again proves to be merely adequate: working with one of the world's most promising screenwriters and a cast of immense ability, he manages to be merely serviceable, providing quirky-cute touches and little else.

The larger questions -- about responsibility, narcissicism, and the place of the artist in the creative process -- go largely unanswered in ADAPTATION, much to its detriment. The overall impression one is left with is that Kaufman's story is brilliant but flawed, one that perhaps bites off more than it can realistically chew. Still, one can be amazed, awed even, by the mind that created it. It would take sixty or seventy regular Hollywood titles to equal the imaginative power in this film alone. See it at your own risk, but see it.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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