Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: "Adaptation" is a Film That Boggles the Mind

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 107 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

Adaptation (2002)
Running time: 114 minutes (1 hour, 54 minutes)
MPAA – R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images
DIRECTOR: Spike Jonze
WRITERS: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman (based upon the novel by Susan Orlean)
PRODUCERS: Jonathan Demme, Vincent Landay, and Edward Saxon
EDITOR: Eric Zumbrunnen
COMPOSER: Carter Burwell


Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Cara Seymour, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, Brian Cox, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jim Beaver, Judy Greer, and Litefoot

Charlie Kaufman, a real, living, breathing person, is a well-known screenwriter. You absolutely must see the film made from his most famous script, Being John Malkovich. A few years ago, he struggled with writing a script adaptation of Susan Orlean’s best-selling novel, The Orchid Thief. He met with Ms. Orlean, and explained his troubles. They apparently came to an agreement that Kaufman would write a screenplay that would be in part about him wrestling with the adaptation of the novel and in part about the story in the book.  That screenplay became the movie, Adaptation.

So here’s the plot of the film Adaptation: Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is struggling in an attempt to write a screenplay based upon Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) best-selling non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief. His twin brother Donald (Cage, again) moves in with Charlie, and Donald decides to write his own original script. With wild and joyful abandon, Donald takes a seminar and leaps into writing a typical Hollywood thriller about a serial killer, while The Orchid Thief slowly drives Charlie to madness.

Meanwhile, in a subplot, the film carries on and we meet Susan who goes to Florida to write an article for the New Yorker about an orchid thief named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who’s been recently arresting for poaching plants on a federal reserve. Ms. Orlean is simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by Laroche, a divorced and lonely man who lost his mother and uncle in an auto accident for which he blames himself.

In the other major subplot: as the film goes on, Donald convinces Charlie that Susan is hiding something, so they track her to Florida to learn the dark secret she shares with Laroche. It mostly ends tragically in a typically Hollywood fashion.

The amazing thing about this film is that it is so good, yet it seems to have almost nothing to do with the director, Spike Jonze, who collaborated with Kaufman on Being John Malkovich. But never doubt Jonze’s prodigious talents, especially if you’ve seen even one of his visionary music videos for acts like Beck or Fatboy Slim. Here he’s almost invisible as he navigates the eccentricities, shifting points of view, and multiple story threads that is Kaufman’s sexy script.

Of course, Kaufman turns out another outstanding script. The film credits list the screenwriters as Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, but Charlie really doesn’t have a twin brother named Donald. Charlie’s attempt was to write a script about script writing, but he also covered such fertile territory as the necessity of change, human isolation and loneliness, writer’s bloc, the treacherous path that is adapting other people’s work, professional jealousy, sibling relationships, guilt, loss, etc. It’s all wonderfully done, but the part of his story that’s supposed to be the typical Hollywood film adaptation is kinda dull and uninteresting. That’s the joke. For the film’s closing segment, Charlie was able to turn Ms. Orlean’s novel into a conventional thriller, and he shows that that can be simultaneously intriguing and dull. The conventional can often seem exciting, but so often it ends in predictability. Thus, Kaufman does get to make his point about cookie cutter film shockers, but the irony is that even his satire of formula writing and filmmaking seems listless. Am I missing the point? I can go on all day, but the best way to tell you about this film would be to share it with you visually, like telepathy, sending sensory images of Adaptation into your mind. That ain’t gonna happen, and I can almost forgive the filmmakers for an ending that was too smart for its own good.

The performances are excellent, and two of them are spectacular. Cage’s Kaufman is his most inspired, witty, and imaginative performance in almost a decade. It the kind of work where he digs deep into himself to find the character the way he did in Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won an Academy Award. His performance as Charlie Kaufman earned his an Academy Award nomination. The second excellent performance was Chris Cooper’s turn as the flower thief Laroche. The lead in two John Sayles films, Matewan and Lone Star, Cooper won an Oscar for his role as Laroche. He earned it with his ability to show that the character was not only stunningly eccentric, but was also mostly just another guy bummed out by life who is doing his best to roll with the punches. It’s enough to inspire even the most blue of us.

7 of 10

2003 Academy Awards: 1 win: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Chris Cooper); 3 nominations: “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Nicolas Cage), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Meryl Streep), “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” (Charlie Kaufman Donald Kaufman)

2003 BAFTA Awards: 1 win: “Best Screenplay – Adapted” (Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman); 3 nominations “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” (Nicolas Cage); “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” (Chris Cooper), and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” (Meryl Streep)

2003 Golden Globes: 2 wins: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Chris Cooper) and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Meryl Streep); 4 nominations: “Best Director - Motion Picture” (Spike Jonze), “Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” (Nicolas Cage), and “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman)


No comments:

Post a Comment