Trying to come up with a concise description of Adaptation is almost as difficult as Charlie Kaufman’s writing his screenplay. There’s just so much great stuff involved in the film–love drugs loneliness the movie industry orchids sex the meaning of life death–that to try and explain the whole thing would take much longer than a paragraph. In any case here goes. Screenwriter Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) a hot commodity after penning the quirky Being John Malkovich is hired by a big movie studio to adapt the best-selling novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). As Kaufman delves into the book Susan a writer for The New Yorker is sent to do a story on John Laroche (Chris Cooper) a man who steals orchids from the Florida Everglades and forms an odd attachment to him. Meanwhile the introspective Kaufman lets his insecurities get the better of him and he simply can’t find a way to write a movie about flowers. Finally he decides to write the screenplay about his experience trying to adapt the novel. He elicits the help of his gregarious twin brother Donald (also Cage) a budding screenwriter himself who’s taken a more commercial formulaic route to writing (Donald’s current screenplay is about a cop a serial killer and a victim–who are all the same person). Eventually all these individuals come together where the story gets even more convoluted. Suffice to say you’ll just have to go see the film to get it.
The entire cast is a marvel to behold especially Cage even if he is the wild card of the bunch. Let’s face it the guy’s star quality has dwindled considerably in recent years with a sizable string a major flops such as Windtalkers and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Casting agents aren’t clamoring to sign him up like they once were. Yet winning a Best Actor Oscar (for Leaving Las Vegas) says something and thankfully we are privy to that Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. He plays the brothers as the introvert/artist and the extrovert/hack that they are but also manages to convey the subtle similarities between the two as well. And like a breath of fresh air Streep returns to the big screen after a lengthy hiatus (her last film was 1999’s Music of the Heart) to play the brilliant-but-confused Orlean. Streep infuses the character with the right mix of intellect loneliness and desperation in trying to figure out her place in the world. Rounding out this strange trio Cooper‘s Laroche is sort of the “id”–the base human part of the movie exposing the seedy underbelly while the other two try to find deeper meaning in life. Cooper (American Beauty) selflessly digs in to play Laroche with his missing teeth and sweaty T-shirts and it’s a wonderful performance. Someone needs to give this tremendous character actor his due very soon. Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers) also does a nice turn as Kaufman’s callous agent.
One thing has been made very clear–Being John Malkovich wasn’t a fluke. The talented team of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman have come up with another pure gem. This time however even though director Jonze choreographs the film beautifully from poetic shots of ghost orchids (a rare type of the orchid family) to Charlie’s sweaty nervous moments Adaptation is really Charlie Kaufman‘s film–that is the real Kaufman not the movie one if he really exists (wait has anyone ever seen a picture of Charlie Kaufman?) What he has done is outrageous narcissistic and could very well turn out to be the one of the most unique screenplay devices ever dreamed up. For any writer–be it screenwriter novelist movie critic–this movie just hits all the way home and should become a standard in showing exactly what it is like to agonize over words. Yet Adaptation isn’t completely self-indulgent. It twists in on itself in the end and actually gives us some true Hollywood-thriller moments. It also does an expert job poking fun at the movie industry which may harm the film’s Oscar chances because the Academy generally doesn’t like it when you make fun of them (although if it doesn’t get a screenplay nod I may have to send an angry letter).