Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Motion picture as onion.
Adaptation exists on so many different levels, it is hardly surprising that the comments it has generated so far range from “brilliant” to “insipid and dull.” To be honest, it is both. Note: this review is gonna contain spoilers, but they really won’t make difference once you see the film. Trust me.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is best known as the writer of Being John Malkovich, a rather entertaining look at celebrity and its impact on the regular man. Not an earthshaking premise on which to base a movie, but it was unique enough to hold your interest. Still, it was a movie about movies to some extent, and really, who cares? In the larger view, the film drove home the point of just how depressing and pathetic the notion of “the grass is always greener on the other side” really is, and how envy warps the soul. Adaptation finds Kaufman again using the world of film, more specifically Hollywood film, to again enlighten viewers as to the true secrets of human nature — or at least his view of it.
The film centers on the inability of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, to create a screenplay based on The Orchid Thief by actual, real person Susan Orlean, a New Yorker magazine essayist. Frustrated by the difficulty of making a movie out of a book that seems to not be filmable, he instead begins to write himself into the story. He is hampered at all turns by his twin brother Donald, a budding screenwriter who is living with him. (Donald, by the way, despite getting writing credit on Adaptation, does not actually exist.) Charlie’s ongoing attempts to steer his brother from the common pitfalls of screenwriting (avoid serial killers, multiple personality disorder, etc) all exist to educate the viewers of the actual movie as to what rules they should watch the movie break by the last reel. Cage is great as the brothers, although being twins it is tricky at times to determine who’s doing what. Which is, of course, part of the point. Meryl Streep still seems unable to generate emotion, but that’s okay, since her character is primarily a dilettante swooping down into people’s lives and vicariously living for a bit, and then wandering off. In this regard, Streep is a bit of inspired casting. Chris Cooper, who portrays the toothless “orchid thief,” steals the movie. He’s the guy at the bar that you hope pays for his beer and leaves, and doesn’t try to strike up a conversation with you, but always does.
Back to the movie. Many people who have seen this film are angered and disappointed by the last third. This is exactly what one imagines director Spike Jonze and writer Kaufman wanted to happen. By blatantly breaking all the rules they have just spent an hour and a half smacking you over the head with, the ending seems trite. It is trite, but not for the reasons it hopes. The film’s title, Adaptation, refers to both the ability of nature (in this case orchids) to adapt to the world around them in order to survive. It also defines the process Charlie Kaufman perceives as necessary to survive in Hollywood, by making crap movies with car chases, over-the-top action sequences and other such marginal devices. Taken in a larger sense, the film exists as a metaphor for life itself, showing, by virtue of the last frames, that adaptation is essential to survival.
I mean really. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are both obviously skilled filmmakers, but unfortunately, the focus is on obvious. To their credit they have created a film that causes an extreme range of reactions, and bewilderingly enough, a film that, if Internet discussion is any indication, quite a few people don’t “get”. They seemingly miss any of the ironic twists in the movie, focusing instead a film about a writer creating a screenplay. Makes one ponder why they went to it in the first place. Maybe to see Nicholas Cage. This movie is sure to disappoint them. Another group has heralded the film as a brilliant and edgy commentary on the Hollywood system, and while it is certainly that, again, who cares? Sunset Boulevard did this perfectly in 1950, and we got it then, so don’t retell the same story. And in the end, who really needs perspective on Hollywood? Just as with anything that produces wares for mass consumption, it finds the lowest common dominator and sticks with it. Again, duh.
In the end, while a re-watching of this film might bring up hidden aspects that your initial exposure might have missed, that is doubtful. Much like Memento, this is a movie so in love with itself and its way of doing things that the viewers are at best an afterthought. Much like a baby who has learned to stand and who then looks around for approval, we cheer the effort, but the end result is so unremarkably commonplace that we scarcely notice it. Jonze and Kaufman have amply proven that they can make intelligent, artful movies. Now if they’d only “adapt” to making ones about something vital, they will be hailed as the geniuses they seemingly think they are.