Adaptation (2002) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexuality, some drug use, and violent images
Running Time: 114 min.


Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Ron Livingston, Brian Cox, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Curtis Hanson (cameo), David O. Russell (cameo), Spike Jonze (cameo), John Cusack (cameo), John Malkovich (cameo)
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman (inspired by the book, "The Orchid Thief", by Susan Orlean)
Review published December 17, 2002

I have to be honest here.  After being completely mesmerized by the first hour or so of the latest Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) collaboration, Adaptation, I had a notion it would easily be my favorite film of the year.  I did not expect one hour of brilliance to be followed by another one filled with boring thriller elements and, with the exception of a couple of key moments, a lack of creative juice.  I hate to come off sounding like I'm writing a negative review, as I recommend Adaptation whole-heartedly, with more moments of creative genius than any ten mainstream comedies.  It is just frustrating to see a movie climb the mountain of movie greatness, only to see it walk back down when the top is just in sight.

Sometimes great filmmakers get credit where credit isn't due, and even a bit of bad filmmaking is glossed over by people hell-bent on asserting that Jonze and Kaufman can do no wrong.  I can easily see the case being made that the final third of the film is intentionally bad, because Kaufman had spent much of the film poo-pooing the very kind of cheap thrill screenwriting that most thrillers employ.  However, I'm not going to play that game, because even if taken on those terms, the minimal value of the irony employed just isn't worth how much time is spent exploring it.

Ok, now comes the time where I have to explain the plot.  I suppose I feel a little like Charlie Kaufman here, because the much of the film is about Kaufman's frustration on trying to adapt an novel that can't be adapted, and that same frustration comes into play when trying to write a plot outline for a film that has no discernible plot.  Basically, all I will say is that Adaptation is about Charlie Kaufman's (Cage, Windtalkers) frustration while adapting Susan Orlean's bestseller, "The Orchid Thief."  He suffers from bouts of writer's block, feelings of inadequacy, a lack of a love life, and a deepening disgust of screenwriting for the Hollywood establishment.  Meanwhile, his twin brother Donald (Cage, in a dual role) succeeds without much talent in all the areas that Charlie feels he is failing at.  Juxtaposed with this story, is the story of the book, which features Susan Orlean (Streep, Defending Your Life) writing her book about a man who steals endangered flowers, and in the search finds that she has been lacking passion for life all along. 

Adaptation is undeniably a real achievement of multi-textural thematic layers, all tied in to one central element, that it's quite a dizzying effect trying to sort all of them out as I sit and type this.  Even the title of the film is not simple, because the film is literally about struggling with an "adaptation" of a book, while a screenwriter struggles to "adapt" to life, while writing about another writer who is having trouble "adapting" herself.  Oops, I think my brain is spewing smoke out of my ears from overwork.

Nicolas Cage is terrific as the Kaufmans, both Charlie and Donald, and the fact that they are quite easy to tell apart even though they look exactly alike is testament to Cage's admirable abilities.  The supporting cast is just as appealing, as is the unfaltering direction by Spike Jonze in keeping the tone of Kaufman's maddeningly complex plotting just right, at least until the anti-climactic climax. (How's that for an oxymoron?)

Interestingly enough, Adaptation actually does manage to adapt Orlean's book by extracting the ultimate message about being content with oneself, foibles and all.  It's one of those films that may lose some people because it is self-indulgent and a tad pretentious, as snobbish in its intellectualism as Punch-Drunk Love was in its artsy-ness.  Kaufman is a brilliant man and may be endlessly talented, but he isn't perfect and neither is the film, as there was one bad joke in the film, and unfortunately it's the one that ran far too long.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo