AdaptationThursday 27 Feb 2003
Duration: 0 minutes
Directed by Spike Jonze starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper.
There's a recurring gag in the film 'Mallrats' where one character spends his entire day gazing at a magic eye picture on show in a shopping centre. No matter how hard he tries to focus and make the eye-brain connection, it's just no use - while everyone who walks past tells him what the image is within a split second. By the end he's a wreck, red faced and torn up about the fact that he just can't see the bigger picture. Some are guaranteed to feel the same after experiencing 'Adaptation'.
There is no middle ground with this film, plenty will adore it while others will feel they have to go and lie down. It will make its audience either feel they've climbed the heights of cleverness or fallen headfirst into the depths of their own stupidity. You could be kicking yourself in the cinema because you didn't bring a pen and flashlight to try and join the dots as the story unfolds or you could get as wrapped up in the lives of the onscreen 'characters' as they are in their own. And if you find the last sentence a struggle, it's just a warm up for a storyline, which reviews can't do justice to.
Spike Jonze directed the thinking comedy 'Being John Malkovich' and it was written by Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman was later signed up to adapt New Yorker journalist Susan Orelan's novel 'The Orchid Thief'. Orelan told the story of her encounters with John Laroche, a man obsessed with rare orchids and his quest to find them. But Kaufman struggled with the script and eventually decided to write himself into it and chronicle how he had tried to cultivate Orlean's book for the screen.
So 'Adaptation' begins with Charlie Kaufman (Cage) on the set of 'Being John Malkovich' and then moving on to the 'Orchid Thief' project. As he wrestles with the text, Charlie's twin brother Donald (Cage again) has decided that he wants to be a screenwriter too but opts for the populist route with seminars to help him find his way. As Charlie tries to put some kind of order on the possibilities in his mind and Donald gets a handle on his new career, the film moves over to show us Orelan's (Streep) travels with Laroche (Cooper) and her growing fascination with his outsider life. But Charlie gets so wrapped up in Laroche's forays into the Florida swamps that he gets lost in a mental one of his own. Can he do justice to the book? To Orelan? Laroche? The faith the studio has in him and - least importantly - himself?
Kaufman, Cage, Streep and Cooper have all been Oscar nominated for their work here and you wonder if in another example of the reality-art osmosis they've created, whether the DVD version of 'Adaptation' could have Cage accepting the screenplay award for Kaufman even though the real Charlie Kaufman is at the ceremony? Or what about the fact that it's both Charlie and Donald Kaufman who are nominated for the award - but Donald doesn't exist in real life? These are the types of questions - and there are hundreds of them - that will whizz around your head while watching. The film's ability to turn in on itself (and you in on yours) will still be chewed over in 50 years' time but in trying to untangle the narrative people should always remember the performances driving it.
Cage's see-saw approach to projects has wound up his fans and critics alike, but his double jobbing here ranks as - arguably - the best thing he's ever done. From the ball of self-doubt that is Charlie to Donald's self-awareness bypass, he is so interesting to watch that you wonder if he won the Oscar, could he get two statues or if one should be split and mounted on separate stands. He's backed up by Streep going into uncharted territory and Cooper shaking off the character actor tag and making everyone sit up and take notice. Through the real lives that they've breathed into, they put forward the argument that the hardest person you'll ever have to get along with is, well, you and the loneliness that comes from getting to know that one person. Each seeks something to take them out of themselves - the creative process, the life of another, the hardest thing in the world to find - and that something forces them to adapt. As Donald says in a rare moment of insight: "you are what you love, not what loves you."
The first third of the film bounces along with a '…Malkovich' style energy, as Charlie gets lost in the second so too will some of the audience, but in the last third of the film it's a struggle for everyone to hang on. When he holds a meeting with a studio executive earlier, Charlie says he doesn't want the film to have sex, guns or car chases. No prizes for guessing what happens towards the close. It's audacious and brave but the argument about whether it's arrogant to think you can pull viewers any which way could lead to fist fights outside afterwards. But that Jones and Kaufman have upped the ante ten hundred fold here is without doubt and what lies ahead for them could be two of the most out-there careers in movie history.
As for the rest of us it's a case of bloody knuckles, ringing ears from the shouts of masterpiece and mishmash and new and broken friendships all because of 114 minutes in a darkened room.
You may never see its like again - but maybe you won't want to.