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"Adaptation" Review

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Title: Adaptation

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour

Written by: Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman, Susan Orlean

Directed by: Spike Jonze

Rating: R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images.


Review by Stephen Silver

A lot of male screenwriters have the habit of dealing with their insecurities by creating protagonists who are more robust, alpha-male versions of themselves. Charlie Kaufman is not one of those screenwriters. His pseudo-autobiographical "Adaptation," on top of its multiple-levels-of-reality premise, is most notable for its utilization of a self-loathing main character who makes Woody Allen look like Vin Diesel.

"Adaptation" is disjointed and off-kilter and it's also the most original American picture of the year. That said, the film's ending takes a huge narrative risk that only marginally pays off.

One of the most self-aware movies ever released by a major studio, "Adaptation" is also the only Hollywood movie in memory in which the screenwriter and protagonist are the same person while the director is a third party (another is "Antwone Fisher," Denzel Washington's upcoming directorial debut). The film's director is Spike Jonze, who along with Kaufman created the 1999 oddball masterpiece "Being John Malkovich," and brings the same hall-of-mirrors aesthetic to "Adaptation."

Nicolas Cage stars in a dual role as Kaufman, the Oscar-nominated writer of Malkovich,' and also as Kaufman's fictional twin brother Donald, a literary device meant to convey the screenwriting profession's dichotomy between art and commerce.

In the movie, as happened in real life, Kaufman is hired to adapt Susan Orlean's non-fiction bestseller "The Orchid Thief," itself the story of toothless Florida orchid collector John LaRoche (played in the movie by Chris Cooper, while Meryl Streep is Orlean). When Kaufman finds this abstract book about flowers unadaptable to the screen, he commits the screenwriter's cardinal sin of actually inserting himself into his own screenplay.

Charlie's already-flagging self-doubt goes into overdrive as a result, and it's only further exasperated when Donald writes a successful screenplay that takes several already-stale Hollywood cliches and hilariously stretches them to the furthest extreme. Donald even starts dating a beautiful makeup artist ("Secretary"'s amazing Maggie Gyllanhaal).

Indeed, the Charlie/Donald split is a dramatization of the struggle between "good" and "bad" Hollywood, of innovation and creativity vs. contrivance and safety. But lest you think the movie is wholeheartedly taking the "good" side, don't forget- Spike Jonze also co-created "Jackass."

In much the same way that Malkovich' was a huge departure from his usual good-guy roles for leading man John Cusack, "Adaptation" gives Cage the chance to move away from his recent vapid action vehicles and overblown romances; after all, lately Cage has had more failed marriages than successful films. The actor, who's lately traded in the vulnerability that marked his early career for lazy machismo, is back to what he does best, and he's perfectly believable in conveying Charlie's wacky neuroses.

Cusack makes a cameo in "Adaptation," as do Malkovich himself and Catherine Keener in a scene from the Malkovich' set. Now it must be said that this year there have been lots of spectactularly awful Hollywood/showbiz satires ("Death to Smoochy," "Simone," "Showtime," "Full Frontal,") and Catherine Keener has co-starred in all of them. She's a fine actress, but what separates "Adaptation" from those is that more than any Hollywood-scewering movie since Altman's "The Player," it actually has something complex and constructive to say about the movies. That, and Keener only appears for a minute or two.

All of the supporting performances are great, especially Streep and Chris Cooper. Hollywood loves to mock and patronize Southern characters (reaching a nadir with Cooper's own performance in "American Beauty"), but Cooper's LaRoche is a living, breathing, and absolutely fascinating character- an articulate, philosophical redneck. And while the ending doesn't entirely work, one of its credits is the way it slowly allows the unique, interesting Streep and Cooper characters to deteriorate into genre archetypes.

Another thing that's refreshing about "Adaptation" is that it's about the creative process without being about the pursuit of fame and stardom. Even though Charlie has a major Hollywood film in production based on his screenplay, the culture of fame does nothing but scare him, so deep is his self-loathing. This is best illustrated in an intentionally cringe-inducing scene in which he tries and fails miserably to flirt with a pretty waitress who knows he likes orchids- he doesn't even think to tell her "oh yea, I'm a Hollywood screeenwriter and I'm writing a movie about them!"

Unfortunately, all of these excellent threads lead to a rather unsatisfying ending. In pursuit of making its point, "Adaptation" goes off in a direction that may work very well as commentary, but doesn't work as narrative. The last 20 minutes of the movie may be an intentional dud, but they're still a dud.

However, "Adaptation" is such an original and creative work that it's not hard to forgive this wrong turn. Charlie Kaufman's world may be a bizarre and neurotic one, but he somehow makes us unbelievably glad that we visited.

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