Modernism for the masses
Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's 'Adaptation' uses famous actors to attract a general audience to a clever, convoluted movie plot. This is pretty much what Jonze's 'Being John Malkovich' did, but this time the dice are more heavily loaded, since on hand are both Nicolas Cage (twice over) and Meryl Streep, not to mention a cameo by Malkovich and a strong appearance by Brian Cox, an outstanding performance by Chris Cooper and the addition of Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and other fine players ---as if Cage and Streep couldn't carry the day by themselves. As vivid as all the acting is, though, this is not a matter of star turns, because, in the film school jargon the movie itself uses, 'Adaptation' is totally 'story-driven.' and it succeeds or fails on the basis of its plot line. Most of the time it succeeds wonderfully, though things get dicey towards the end.
Jonze's movie presents the classic modernist theme of self-reflexive fiction: a writer writing about the process of writing--in this case, the more complicated situation of a screenwriter (Jonze's actual screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicolas Cage) writing about his inability to do a movie adaptation of a book. If the director's aim is to show how to make a dull (or at best tricky) subject into an enjoyable movie, he's provided a practical illustration here, because---at least for three quarters of the way, 'Adaptation' is very entertaining, fresh stuff.
For extra flavor the book Kaufman's been assigned to adapt is a tough one, because it's Susan Orlean's 'The Orchid Thief', a story about a rogue horticulturalist in Florida named John Laroche. It had its genesis in a meandering New Yorker style story that's full of self-reflection (like the movie's depiction of Kaufman) and without a conventional 'arc.'
Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is stuck in Hollywood with a deadline and writer's cramp, much like Barton Fink in the Coen Brothers' movie of the same name.
But "Adaptation's" creator, who loves intricacy, has added another wrinkle in the form of a doppelganger, an upbeat alter ego, Donald, a twin brother boarding with Charlie who promptly decides that he too wants to be a screenwriter. And while Charlie agonizes, Donald happily adopts a conventional theme (a murder thriller) develops it using cookbook methods taught him at a pat screenplay-writing seminar, and in short order winds up selling the resulting manuscript through Charlie's agent for big money---though Charlie has done nothing but tell Donald he's doing everything wrong. Meanwhile we've been watching Charlie writhe and sweat and bring forth nothing on his "Orchid Thief" assignment.
This ironic, but somewhat static, story line is enlivened by continual cross cutting between the Kaufman brothers' story and a dramatization of the earlier adventure of Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep's) work on 'The Orchid Thief,' the book Charlie has been hired to adapt.
In fact the heart of the film is Orlean's relationship with John Laroche, (Chris Cooper), the seedy but brilliant plant expert whose wild life led to the theft of hundreds of rare orchids in Florida. The problem for Charlie Kaufman is that, colorful as Laroche is, and interesting as Orlean's study of him was, there's no conventional movie ending provided by the book. Charlie hunts outside the book for some sex interest, but learns that there was no greater intimacy between Orlean and Laroche than any good nonfiction writer's close connection to her subject that ends when the book is done. The more we learn about 'The Orchid Thief' as its subject and its creation come to life before our eyes, in fact, the more we understand why Charlie is stymied about how to make this into a nicely structured screenplay.
What makes the movie work for us most of the way is witty writing, lively cross cutting, and good acting to give the writing substance. In the 'Orchid Thief' segments, we're continually entertained by Chris Cooper's supple impersonation of Laroche, who's wonderfully quirky and sexy, despite lacking all his front teeth, as well as by Streep's appealing and delicate performance as a talented writer drawn increasingly to the colorful, offbeat Laroche because he has a passion she lacks.
It's also fun in the alternating segments to observe the oddity of an actor (like Jeremy Irons in Cronenberg's creepy 'Dead Ringers') playing twins who're together chatting in scene after scene, delineating the contrasts between Charlie and Donald without any differences in physical appearance. Of course we know it's a trick, but it's fair to say we come to accept that we're watching two brothers, because the filmmaking is so deadpan, and Cage is so intently engaged in his task. Our observation of Cage at work has the same self-conscious quality of the story itself.
The movie's critical turning point comes when in desperation Charlie attends a New York workshop by Robert McKee (Brian Cox), the screenwriting teacher his brother has been touting. The hardboiled McKee savagely mocks Charlie's stated intention of making a film where nothing much happens, the main characters don't change, and there's no dramatic finale. This sequence clearly defines the problem Jonze and the real Kaufman are facing. Sure, McKee is a crude guy, but he speaks a basic truth: an audience needs action and characters have to change. The fictional Charlie Kaufman can't end his screenplay. How are the real Jonze and Kaufman going to end theirs?
It's here that things go wrong, because without further ado the two segments of Charlie and Donald and Orleans and Laroche are suddenly brought together with violent results that obviously never happened in the real world--which has been pretty well replicated up till now, despite all the self-reflectiveness and the ironic contrasts between Charlie Kaufman and his invented double Donald. It's hard to know how to react to this finale, which drops the self-reflexive ironies and dives into a conventional and corny climax. What's happening here? Is the real Kaufman mocking the simplistic dogmas of McKee types—the cheap Hollywood shibboliths, or proving them true?
Ultimately it's hard to see this blustering finale as anything other than one more example of the willful unevenness of tone that characterizes the work of a lot of young American filmmakers, who start out sly and sardonic and wind up corny--an unevenness 'Pumpkin,' 'The Good Girl,' and 'About Schmidt' provide other recent examples of. Nonetheless Jonze and Kaufman show themselves to be very close to the top of the game here in their ability to make popular art out of real material in a sophisticated and entertaining modernist way. Like 'About Schmidt,' 'Adaptation' may succeed in gently leading the general audience in an edgier direction, and this time the result—up to the last quarter, anyway-- is much more fun than any other American movie of the year besides "Catch Me If You Can."
January 5, 2003
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/