This review contains spoilers. Sorry, but this film is difficult enough to write about without trying to hide certain plot points.
Writing a story about writing, much like making movies about making movies, is an essentially self-involved act. The writer or director might have something dramatic in their imagination, but instead they’re trying to explain to the audience why high drama results from the process of bringing their own imaginations to life. The good films in this genre, such as 8 1/2, come off as a little self-indulgent; the bad ones come off as intellectual masturbation.
And then there’s Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Adaptation, which defies description or categorization. Adaptation is self-involved, but only as a message about the dangers of self-involvement. It is masturbatory in many ways (including literally), but in a productive way toward advancing its characters. It is a film about adapting an unfilmable novel, which is itself a result of a mixed-to-failed attempt to adapt a successful piece of nonfiction.
The story behind the movie is that Susan Orlean wrote a much-celebrated article for the New Yorker, “The Orchid Thief,” about professional flower poacher John Laroche. Orlean was subsequently asked to expand Laroche’s story into a novel, but The Orchid Thief suffered from the fact that there was not much story to add. Still, the book was successful enough that it was optioned into a movie, and a difficult and unusual screenwriter was hired to adapt it: Charlie Kaufman, who received the job even before he had written the weird, hilarious Being John Malkovich. Because The Orchid Thief is nigh unfilmable, Kaufman suffered from a crippling case of writer’s block until he wrote himself into his own movie and turned it into a tale of how tough the screenplay was to write.
That’s all true. It’s also all fictionalized in the movie, with Nicholas Cage playing Kaufman, Meryl Streep playing Orlean, and Chris Cooper playing Laroche. Additionally, a completely fictional character was created for the film and eventually credited with co-writing it: Charlie’s twin brother Donald Kaufman (also played by Cage, of course). The movie explores Charlie’s writer’s block by contrasting it with Orlean’s frustrating experience writing the novel and Donald’s success with his cliched serial-killer screenplay.
An important concept for the film is the idea of “selling out.” Charlie would like to stay pure in the stories he tells; as his opening pitch for The Orchid Thief adapting job shows us, he doesn’t believe in the simple character arcs or easy resolutions that most movies provide. He thinks that by putting such things in his story, he would be selling out. Donald is attending a seminar from screenwriting teacher Robert McKee (also a real person, played in the film by Brian Cox), and like most “serious” writers, Charlie thinks McKee is a hack who’s relieving suckers of their money.
Many great films have been made about fighting against the urge to sell out. Adaptation could easily have been one of those films, but instead Kaufman goes to an even higher level by suggesting that being more like Donald could be good for Charlie. At first it might seem that Donald represents all of the forces of stupidity in the world that make Charlie feel so awkward, but by the end of the film Donald represents all the happiness that Charlie wishes he could have. As with many cases of self-loathing, Charlie’s decision to isolate himself is actually part of the problem.
Charlie’s writing follows the same pattern, as he realizes the only way out of his misery is to embrace his inner McKee, not shun it. In one incredible monologue from Cox, we understand that McKee’s boilerplate rules don’t exist because they’re a hacky way to make money; they exist because the supposed cliches of drama actually happen to real people every day all over the world. Perhaps the real-life Susan Orlean did not become a drug addict or find herself in a torrid and unethical affair with her interview subject, but she could have done so … she would not be the first writer it happened to, which is why it’s dramatic.
The great triumph of this screenplay* is that Charlie learns how to be an better, more honest person by turning his screenplay into a cheesy, dishonest thriller. Everything that Charlie doesn’t want to put into his screenplay, he ends up using; every cliche that he hates about Donald’s lame serial-killer screenplay ends up finding its way into Adaptation. It’s not only because Charlie is under the gun to finish his movie, either; the wild thriller elements end up being Charlie’s path to the emotional heart of the story he wants to tell. Charlie finds growth in his own life by giving himself the very sort of cathartic character arc that he derides in other screenplays.
Cage puts his mark on this film by taking a fearless trek into Charlie Kaufman’s deep, deep well of self-loathing. Sporting dozens of extra pounds of fat-suit and an unflattering hairdo, Cage is utterly without vanity as Charlie; in fact, the more beautiful the actress sitting opposite him, the sweatier, greasier and more disgusting Cage’s make-up job seems to be. Charlie’s inability to connect with people around him, especially women, loads the film up with painful awkwardness that most “movie stars” go out of their way to avoid, but Cage embraces wholeheartedly. This is the Cage that I suffered through The Wicker Man with the hope that I would see, the Cage that has an Oscar for Best Actor on his mantle.
Cooper picked up an Academy Award for his by-turns hilarious and sad work as Laroche, but Streep … I’ve seen a lot of Meryl Streep films. She’s always good. This is the first film of hers I’ve seen where I thought that she is simply the greatest actor who’s ever lived. Susan Orlean is not much of a part on the page; half of the time she’s more “Charlie’s idealized Susan Orlean” than a real person. As the movie turns into a traditional thriller she becomes even less fleshed-out, by design: Charlie Kaufman is just trying to get the screenplay finished, and he needs faux-Orlean to be a one-dimensional villain in order for that to happen. It is only through the sheer force of Streep’s performance that the movie’s fictionalized Orlean remains a sincere person, disappointed and grasping for any connections that she can find in the world. Streep is as funny here as in any film of hers I’ve seen, yet her final scene in the movie is so heartbreaking and sad that we somehow forget that we just saw a man eaten by an alligator only seconds before.
Kaufman has said that he believed he was ending his career by turning in the script that he did, especially since the movie itself barely turned a profit in the U.S. – it battled for eyeballs with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, as well as more traditional Oscar-bait like Gangs of New York and eventual Best Picture winner Chicago. That’s fine, though: this is not the sort of film that becomes a blockbuster. It is the sort of film that should be discovered, cherished like the masterpiece it is, and appreciated for every way in which it speaks to one’s own personal insecurities.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The Kaufman “brothers” won a screenwriting Oscar, the only time in history that a fictional person has won an Academy Award.