Adaptation (2002)

One of Adaptation‘s many layers is about its own creation. If that doesn’t make sense yet, it might by the time the film draws to a close — although it’s entirely possible that it won’t, too, and I think that’s okay. In the credits, we’re told that the screenplay is written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman, who are both in the film and both played by Nicolas Cage. However, Charlie Kaufman is a real person. In the film, he has a twin brother. In real life, writing the film’s screenplay, Kaufman was flying solo. Begin to work through this.

The basic plot involves Charlie (Cage) working on a screenplay, attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief. Orlean is in the film, played by Meryl Streep. We follow two storylines, really. The first is in the present, with Charlie’s attempts to write the screenplay — which end up being the movie we’re watching, somehow — and of Orlean’s journey in writing an article for the New Yorker on an orchid enthusiast named John Laroche (Chris Cooper), which would eventually become the novel that Charlie is attempting to adapt.

That’s not even getting close to the crux of it, but words can barely even begin to scratch that. I can see how Kaufman, the real man, could struggle to write that adaptation, or even to write the screenplay about his struggle with writing that adaptation. Still with me after that line? I hope so, because if you can follow the text, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with the movie. At least, not until it starts to get really weird, but that’s a subject to be discussed after Adaptation has been seen, preferably more than once.

Getting past the obscure narrative and structure, there are some very big and important ideas brought across by Adaptation. While it’s weird and obtuse and you won’t see anything like it … ever, really, it also has a real heart, and it stops itself often enough to remind you of this. There’s a very key scene late in the film when Nicolas Cage gives an inspiring speech to Nicolas Cage about self-esteem and carpe diem and all that good stuff, and it’s actually quite impressive and thought provoking. Adaptation might not change your life, but it has that potential.

All you had to do to get me to say this movie is to tell me that two Nicolas Cages are on-screen at the same time for more than a one-off gimmick. Cage is the kind of person who can pull this off, and seeing him act alongside himself for numerous scenes is worth the price of admission alone, regardless of whether or not you’re going to dedicate the brainpower to completely understanding the film as a whole.

There’s also an aspect to the film in which it pokes fun at itself, at other screenplays, and at the entire film industry for coming up with generic material. It even inserts a writer who preaches to aspiring writers to turn in the most generic of screenplays, as that’s what will get you the money. Using a narrator — which this film does — is criticized, and so is the self-indulgent behavior of inserting yourself into the story — even if you’re the main character and you only realize that you’re doing this part way into a movie that’s starring you. Still following?

Intentionally or not, Adaptation eventually degenerates a little bit, having a minor shootout and chase scene, which wind up being the parts of the film that drag the most. They’re the least interesting, for one, and I don’t think they’re the type of scenes that director Spike Jonze (who collaborated with Kaufman for Being John Malkovich, also an absurd film) does well or enjoys. He likes making your mind work, and those scenes don’t accomplish that end.

The other times that it doesn’t work is when it tries to be too clever, or too self-aware. Generally, this results in laughter, but it sometimes lingers on a point of this nature, or attempts to think it through too hard, and it begins to draw our attention away from the characters or narrative, making us focus on whatever area of the screenplay was deficient. I don’t know. If I see a spelling mistake in this review do I point it out and say “Hey, look at that spelling mistake. Isn’t it neat how I left it in there?” No, it gets fixed and I move on, which is what Adaptation doesn’t do.

This isn’t one of those Nic Cage-led productions in which our star gets to overact and show off. Here, he’s restrained and equally effective at playing the neurotic Kaufman as the outgoing one. Meryl Streep is in top form, too, going through the biggest (and most shocking) transformation. Chris Cooper is also fun to watch, playing a hillbilly missing his front teeth, whose passion in life makes him something of an inspiration.

Adaptation is a thought-provoking movie that’s either pure genius or a complete mess. Either way you look at it, it’s a compelling work that is unlike almost anything out there. It might make complete sense, and it might make no sense. I’m still not sure. It might be both. It gives you something to think about, though, and the narrative rarely comes in front of that. It’s funny and touching in its own way, and if Nicolas Cage acting alongside Nicolas Cage can’t get you to watch a movie, we can’t be friends.

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