Mental Hijinx With Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton
Director: Spike Jonze
Every time we sit down to watch a movie we voluntarily walk the line between reality and fantasy. The best films bring us into their world, allowing us to leave behind our reality and enter the characters lives for a while. Then we have movies like Adaptation, which takes the line between reality and fantasy, blurs it, stomps on it, ties it up in a ball and plays keep-away with it, all the while daring us to either join in the fun or sit on the sidelines.
Adaptation is, in the most simple terms, the story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his struggle to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. But that’s kind of like saying The Lord of the Rings is about a small man with jewelry. There is layer upon layer upon endless layer of fantasy and reality, fact and fiction, self-loathing and self-pity, confidence and hesitance, satisfaction and discontent. And somehow it all works together and becomes a goofy, completely absorbing and comprehensible whole.
As we enter the story, Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) has written a brilliant script for Being John Malkovich. He’s widely heralded for the genius of this work, yet on the set of the movie he is virtually unnoticed. In wonderfully deadpan, monotone voice over narration, Charlie berates himself for being fat, bald, talentless and useless. You could say that he’s somewhat lacking in easy self-confidence. Not so his twin brother Donald (Cage again), who, while sharing all of Charlie’s physical characteristics, shows none of his self doubt. While Donald has yet to find his niche in the world, he’s thinking that he’ll become a screenwriter like his brother. He’ll even take a seminar to teach him how to do it! Charlie tries to explain why this is simply not an option, but Donald doesn’t work that way. It sounds good. He’s going for it.
Charlie has been commissioned to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). It’s a book about flowers. Charlie wants to write a movie about flowers. But he just can’t. He can’t find a beginning, a way into the story. He’s self disgustedly blocked. The fact that Donald is staying with him, and brimming with incomprehensible confidence, helps not one bit.
We watch Charlie flounder, Donald soar, and flash back to Susan writing her book about actual orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper), all while wrapped in the Charlie’s web of mental self flagellation. Eventually, these stories actually manage to merge – sort of.
What completely turns Adaptation on its ear is the fact that some of these people are real, some of these things exist. Some of this story is actually true. You just don’t really know which parts (some are obvious, others, not so much). The film brilliantly weaves the fiction with the non-fiction, resulting in a hyper-vivid tapestry with the feeling of the story of a man told, perhaps, during an acid flashback. It’s insane. But it’s genius.
Nicolas Cage gives a stellar performance as Charlie and Donald. The characters have almost no distinguishing physical characteristics, yet there is never any doubt as to which we’re watching. Cage manages to maintain the delicate (and not so delicate) strings of character that separate these men. At the same time he also makes them funny, sad and somehow accessible. A true achievement in acting.
Streep, also, in actuality, plays multiple characters. Susan undergoes a drastic enough change during the course of the story that Streep may as well have played two different characters. It’s in her initial Susan who oozes loneliness and a recognition of the shallowness of her own reality where Streep really shines. Cooper bounces from nutball to intelligent and complicated and back so many times that his character should be disjointed and jangling. Yet Cooper slides through all the outer strangeness and emerges as a character with depth and eccentricities that make him oddly and disturbingly appealing. The chemistry between Streep and Cooper elevates both characters. Cooper received a well deserved Oscar nod for this performance.
Adaptation is about so many things: loneliness, obsession, striving, success, failure and ultimately self acceptance. But these “morals” never once stand in the way of the goofy, fun and utterly ridiculous story that unfolds on the screen. All are simply part and parcel of the characters – how we choose to link them, relate to them, see ourselves in them is completely up to us. Kaufman has again offered up a story that defies traditional storytelling methods and traditional characters and traditional anything. And director Spike Jonze is smart enough to go with that, rather than trying to mold this into something it simply cannot be. Adaptation is funny, strange, endearing and downright crazy. In the end, “You are who you love, not who loves you”. A moral that doesn’t really make much sense, yet somehow really does. Perfect. 5 stars out of 5.