Life imitating art imitates life
By Jon Popick
It’s usually quite exciting when characters break the fourth wall in unconventional ways, like when Jeff Daniels stepped off the screen and into Mia Farrow’s life in The Purple Rose of Cairo. In Adaptation, Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman don’t just break down said wall so much as completely obliterate it. The result is certainly the most original film of the year, if not since their very own Malkovich.
It’s a trippy, confusing ride, so let’s start with the basics:
REALITY: Several years ago, while his first film (Malkovich) was in production, Kaufman was offered the chance to adapt Susan Orlean’s best-selling novel The Orchid Thief into a major motion picture. Kaufman accepted, but quickly found it impossible to turn the book, which was about a very unthrilling hunt for a rare type of flower, into something anyone would actually pay money to see. Faced with both a devastating case of writer’s block and a looming deadline, Kaufman incorporated himself and his inability to complete the screenplay into the script for Thief.
THE FILM: Adaptation is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who, while seeing his first film (Malkovich) in production, is offered the chance to adapt Susan Orlean’s best-selling novel The Orchid Thief into a major motion picture. He accepts, but quickly finds it impossible to turn the book, which is about a very unthrilling hunt for a rare type of flower, into something anyone would actually pay money to see. Faced with both a devastating case of writer’s block and a looming deadline, Kaufman incorporates himself and his inability to complete the screenplay into the script for Thief.
But the wackiness isn’t limited to just that. Kaufman (the real one) gives Kaufman (the fake one) a twin brother (they’re both played by Nicolas Cage), who doesn’t actually walk the Earth, but does have an official screenwriting credit on Adaptation. Are you still with me? Donald Kaufman might exist only in the movie, but we’re still not entirely sure his character isn’t a figment of Charlie’s (the fake one) imagination. But he’s totally a figment of Charlie’s (the real one) imagination.
As if that wasn’t enough turmoil for the typical moviegoer used to crap like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Jonze and Kaufman (the real one) bounce us around in time from present day, to 4 billion years ago, to Darwin’s time, to three years ago, where Orlean (Meryl Streep) researched a possibly crazy Floridian (Chris Cooper) accused of stealing orchids out of a protected state wildlife refuge. Her exploration of John Laroche became the basis for a magazine article, which ultimately became the novel, which sort of became this film.
Hey, speaking of writing movie scripts, that’s just what Donald wants to do after attending a screenwriting seminar taught by a crusty veteran (Brian Cox). While Charlie (the fake one) tries to turn Thief into a fresh, edgy, cliché-free story, Donald is working on a ham-fisted tale featuring a serial killer with multiple personalities, car chases, gunplay and a voiceover…all things Charlie (the fake one, and possibly the real one, too) can’t stand. In an effort not to reveal what happens in Adaptation’s last reel, if this doesn’t convince you that the film is the most innovative of the year, you’ve either missed the joke or are the butt of it.
As shocking as it may seem, this is Cage’s first indie film credit since he won the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. Not so coincidentally, it’s also his best work since then, if not ever. Between his acting and Jonze’s direction, you will completely believe there are two different actors on the screen when you watch Charlie (the fake one) and Donald interact. Streep is, as always, very good-it’s a whole lot of fun to watch her do comedy, a medium in which she is completely underrated (see Defending Your Life for more proof). As good as Cage and Streep are, though, this is Cooper’s show to steal. His Laroche looks like a cross between the late Jim Varney and the character the late Jim Varney played on The Simpsons. Except he’s missing his front teeth, too.
Meanwhile, Jonze is starting to one-up the Farrelly brothers when it comes to making big stars look really ugly in their movies. After giving John Cusack (you can spot him here, along with Catherine Keener, who plays Boggle with Donald) and Cameron Diaz unattractive makeovers in Malkovich, Jonze and crew turn the usually trim Cage into a dumpy, balding mess. And you’re forewarned about what they did to Cooper. Aside from the destruction of the fourth wall, Jonze and Kaufman’s venture is reminiscent of another brother-made film about a movie scribe with writer’s block-the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. Ironically, that film’s star, John Turturro, was originally tapped to play Laroche.