February 7, 2003

Get me Rewrite!

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Writer Charlie Kaufman gets his revenge on the Hollywood establishment in Adaptation, a film that makes him the protagonist, albeit not an especially flattering one. Kaufman’s inability to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a movie is the basis for his semi-factual journey from frustration to self-realization. Though the real-life Kaufman does have a knack for twisting reality with fantasy (see Being John Malkovich and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Adaptation’s biggest fault is that it comes across as so conventional, even in the face of its absurdity.

The film begins with Kaufman (played by a pudgy and balding Nicolas Cage in one of those unglamorous Stallone-in-Copland roles that actors take to regain credibility before they resume destroying their careers) on the set of Malkovich, where he finds himself an unwelcome presence. Adding to his insecurity, he shares a house with his juvenile twin brother Donald (also Cage), and is experiencing massive writer’s block. Splitting the plot with Kaufman’s tale of woe is the background story behind The Orchid Thief. Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper play Orlean and her title character, John Laroche, a man who has devoted his life to rare orchids and makes Orlean wish that she too could feel passionately about something. At some point between Charlie deciding he’s going to insert himself into his flagging script and his final showdown with Orlean and Laroche, fact dissolves into fiction.

Adaptation has a serious problem with finding its tone. The scenes with Cage as twins are seamlessly done and fun to watch. The subplot involving Donald’s unbelievably stupid serial killer script, which begins garnering buzz around town and further depresses the ‘real’ writer Charlie, is quite funny despite being suspiciously derivative of True West. Countering this are scenes of a despondent, floundering Charlie, whose neuroses by themselves are pathetic and not particularly amusing. His decision to make himself the lead character in the script might seem inspired if it weren’t so clearly out of desperation. The Orlean/Laroche plot moves slowly and seems largely secondary; since Streep and Cooper, though both solid as ever, are relegated to a half-movie that Kaufman never finished writing, their story resonates rather weakly. Furthermore, when the movie’s two strands finally meet, the resulting conclusion is inconsistent and inappropriate.

Director Spike Jonze, best known for odd and inspired music videos, could have had some real fun with the agony of the creative process. In the end, Kaufman’s failure in adapting The Orchid Thief is not nearly as intriguing as he might think. Whereas the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink turned writer’s block into an outlandish nightmare, Adaptation is more the product of writer’s block than an exploration of it.

Archived article by Dan Schiff