Charlie Kaufman’s giddy Adaptation goofs the Hollywood process
In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich fame gives us the fictionalized spectacle of his attempts to write a screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. Nicolas Cage plays Charlie and his flaky brother Don as well, and Meryl Streep plays Orlean, and the film itself wobbles between fiction and mock autobiography in some intriguingly bent ways. But for all of its oddball quirks, this Spike Jonze-directed film looks more and more like cynical, and perhaps even sleazy, goofing on the process of concocting movies in contemporary Hollywood.
At its best, the new Jonze-Kaufman concoction is a giddily conceptual comedy that bounces among several stories and time-schemes: Charlie’s professional and personal frustrations, Orlean’s increasingly complicated relationship with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the funky outlaw horticulturalist who became the title character of her book, and Charlie’s flim-flam relationship with his knuckle-headed twin brother Don (also played by Cage), who is blundering into a successful screenwriting career of his own.
Sweaty, balding, overweight, and pathologically shy, Charlie is presented as a sad clown, but his self-loathing is so abject and pathetic that it overrides the cute charm in Cage’s familiar screen persona. While Cage is much better with Don’s clueless ingenuity, his Charlie is so repellent and unsympathetic that many of his scenes fall flat. Streep and Cooper are much more electric, but one of the film’s comic conceits is that the central characters of the book take a back seat to the Kaufman brothers in their cinematic adaptation.
The Kaufmans’ screenplay appropriates Orlean’s themes of ruling passions and identity quests, but those too take a back seat to Charlie’s inside-out comedy of screenplay carpentry. It seems no accident that Adaptation invokes Fellini’s 8 1/2 (as an alleged “mockumentary,” no less!), for it too is a story about the serendipitous path leading to the creation of the film that we’ve been watching.
A portion of the audience at the screening I attended was audibly enjoying the film’s in-jokes and flip Hollywood satire and applauded afterward as if they’d just been through a feel-good experience. But one of the most elaborate jokes in this shaggy-dog story has Charlie doing just what he said he’d never do—abandon Orlean’s book and substitute the Hollywood staples of sex, violence, car crashes and uplifting endings.
Adaptation also invokes Casablanca and Julius and Philip Epstein, the twin brothers who were its principal screenwriters. One of the Epsteins (Julius, I think) referred to that adored classic as "slick shit," and the cynically comical scamming in the final 30 minutes of the Kaufmans’ scenario (complete with demented deus ex machina via car crash) probably ought to leave you feeling that some kind of "slick shit" is with us once again.