a dark, brilliant
satire of Hollywood
January 16, 2003
By Franklin Harris
"Adaptation" is a mesmerizing dark comedy.
Charlie Kaufman is a real person, a screenwriter whose credits include "Being John Malkovich" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
Susan Orlean is also a real person, a writer for The New Yorker and author of "The Orchid Thief."
John Laroche is a real person, too. He is the subject of Orlean's book.
All three are also characters in "Adaptation," which Kaufman wrote with his twin brother, Donald.
But Donald isn't real. He is just a character in a movie.
"Adaptation" begins something like this: Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is trying to adapt "The Orchid Thief" into a film. This proves difficult, however, because while Kaufman wants to remain true to the book's spirit, it lacks everything that makes for a so-called Hollywood production. It is about orchids and obsessive orchid hunters. It doesn't have any sex, guns or car chases.
At the start, Kaufman is already neurotic. He worries about his hair and his weight. He is convinced the bump on his leg is cancerous.
Then he begins writing, and he is sure his script stinks, too.
Meanwhile, Donald (also Cage) takes a writing class and cranks out a potboiler screenplay called "The Three," which he sells for more than $1 million.
Donald's script is what people in Hollywood call "high concept," which means you can describe it in one sentence. It is about a cop, a killer and a victim, all of whom happen to be distinct personalities of the same person.
Brilliant, right? Well, actually, no. But it is a "Hollywood" story. It follows the principles of Robert McKee, who is a real screenwriting guru, but who for our purposes is actor Brian Cox ("The Ring").
Charlie decides to start at — where else? — the beginning.
First, the Earth cools. Then life evolves. Dinosaurs live and die. Flowers, including orchids, grow. Eventually, apes become men, and men like Charlie and Laroche are born.
John Laroche (Chris Cooper) is brilliant, vulgar, slightly mad and missing his front teeth, and he has cooked up a scheme to cultivate endangered orchids picked from the Florida Everglades.
Arrested and on trial for violating conservation laws, Laroche catches the attention of Orlean (Meryl Streep), who comes to Florida to write about him.
Her story becomes a book, which in turn attracts Hollywood executives who want to turn it into a movie. So, they call Charlie, who is hot stuff after turning in that brilliant "Malkovich" script.
Which brings us back to Charlie, alone in his room while his brother parties with the beautiful people. It's Charlie writing about Charlie. He writes himself into his script. More precisely, he writes about writing himself into his script.
Unabashed in its self-absorption, "Adaptation" is one of the most inventive movies of the past 10 years.
Cage, who already has an Oscar, finally gives an Oscar-worthy performance — two of them, actually — complimented by the always exceptional Streep and Cooper's demented yet sympathetic Laroche.
Kaufman and director Spike Jonze (who also directed "Malkovich") have produced a truly postmodern movie. It plays with its own story, self-consciously aware that it is a work of fiction that just happens to include real people and real events.
There is a literal adaptation of Orlean's book in there somewhere, but mostly "Adaptation" is a comedy about the storytelling process — a satire of the Hollywood system. It's narrative is so tightly woven that even when Kaufman cheats, according to Hollywood's rules of storytelling, it doesn't matter. He warned you it was coming.
If Kaufman and Jonze's collaborations are always going to be this ingenious, hopefully "Adaptation" will not be their last.