ADAPTATION is the story of one man’s epic quest to adapt the unadaptable. In this case, turning THE ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean, into a feature film. The problem is that the non-fiction book is a rambling account of a rogue orchid hunter with the history of orchid mania and a glimpse of contemporary Seminole life thrown in. The man is Charlie Kaufman, writer of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and where that film left off as far as reality is concerned, this film starts and then takes off at a gallop.
Charlie is played by Nicholas Cage who for some reason bears a striking resemblance to Gene Wilder of all people. Cage also plays Charlie’s twin brother Donald. While Charlie is, to put it as gently as possible, a mess, Donald is the picture of happiness, though a happiness born of being completely oblivious to the world around him. Actually, Charlie is pretty oblivious, too, but he takes a different route to the same destination, utter self-absorption. When we meet him, he’s having lunch with a film executive who thinks he’s brilliant, but what we hear is Charlie’s non-stop monologue wondering if he’s sweating too much, saying too little, weighing too much, looking too bald and so forth. Living, as he does, exclusively in his head, and a forbidding landscape that is where self-deprecation plays on an endless loop 24/7, what’s actually happening around him doesn’t stand a chance of getting through. You can tell that merely being awake is excruciating for Charlie by the way he walks, hunched up as though he were being physically beaten down by his self-loathing. The result being that even on the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, which is re-created for the film, Charlie is given all the respect and deference due a dead cockroach.
As Charlie sinks deeper into an even more massive style of depression over not being able to get a script out of Orleans book, the deadbeat yet upbeat Donald takes a scriptwriting seminar, writes a cliché-ridden script, and then proceeds to make Charlie’s life even more of a living hell than anyone, even Charlie, could imagine.
The solution, and when you think about it, there really was no other way to go, is to write himself and Donald into the script, creating a story of how impossible it is to make a film of this book. Along the way there are digressions and flashbacks, from the creation of the earth to Orlean’s true adventures in Florida with John LaRoche, the eponymous and somewhat toothless orchid thief played with a prickly eccentricity tinged with poetry by Chris Cooper. There is even a cameo by Darwin, who was more fascinated with orchids than he was with the Galapagos Islands.
The script that Kaufman, the real Kaufman, has created is a wonder of meta, meta, meta self-reference. By writing himself into the script he has taken the unadaptable and turned it into a comedy that respects no boundaries and no conventions. Each rule of scriptwriting is turned on its proper little head, given a good tweak, and then sent squealing into oblivion. You may never be able to see a formula film again and take it seriously after watching the mechanics of the cookie-cutter script splayed open and skewered as they are here. And just to make sure that we know exactly what’s skewered, Kaufman throws in a glimpse of that screenwriting seminar with Brian Cox as the gruff and blustery teacher. All the better to enjoy the irony as eventually the whole story devolves into an ugly morass of fancy that, appropriately, has its climax in a swamp where every principle of screenwriting is followed with scrupulous detail in all its absurdity.
Director Spike Jonze takes the visuals into hyperspace by matching the frenetic pace of Charlie’s fevered mind. And while that means a lot of stop-action and scenes speeded up with a warp drive, it also means catching the noir-ish turn the story takes when Charlie finally frees himself from the bondage of reality. The actors keep pace with the script. Though Meryl Streep as Orlean glides effortlessly from chic New York intellectual longing to know what obsession is like into the heroine of an overripe melodrama, it is Cage who makes up for a multitude of past sins here. His Charlie and Donald are both innocents wandering life without a clue. It’s as Charlie, though, that he soars, taking this uber self-conscious schlub to heights of pathos and farce and telling volumes with no dialogue, just body language and a face set with perpetual bemusement, often joined with despair, as when he can’t talk himself into making a move on the woman he loves, even when she all but throws herself at him. The impeccable timing of the moment lost is a wonder to behold the first time, and even more delicious the second time.
And that’s the key. The irresistibly wicked humor of this film is firmly rooted in despair. We can all relate, and we can all feel just a little smug because no matter what sort of messes we are, at least we can get through a day, at least one, without drowning in the sea of angst that is Charlie’s norm. ADAPTATION is one of the smartest, funniest, and most original films youll ever see.