Adaptation is the first feature from the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman since their major popular success Being John Malkovich. It was worth the wait. Adaptation fulfills all the promise of its predecessor and more–it’s funnier, more complex, and equally original and fresh.
The central character of the film is Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage). He’s a screenwriter blocked on an adaptation of a book by Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep) called The Orchid Thief. Now, Adaptation is based on a real book, The Orchid Thief, by the real Susan Orleans, so the film is a fictionalized take on the difficulty of adapting the book and it also contains scenes from the adaptation itself–there’s a movie within the movie. The verbal description sounds more complicated than it seems on screen, where the skill of the writing and direction knit the fashionably meta, self-reflexive "making of" story with the substance of Orleans’ themes in The Orchid Thief.
The Orchid Thief, an expansion of a New Yorker magazine article, investigated the case of an orchid poacher, John Laroche (Chris Cooper), who eluded the law by working with Seminole Indians who have a legal right to harvest the flowers from the Florida swamps. Orleans is intrigued with Laroche’s passion for orchids. There’s interesting play on the sexual aspects of orchids, too, but Orleans is more interested in the ability to care about something passionately: "I want to want something as much as people want these plants." Orleans cultivates Laroche’s confidence and learns his personal history.
Meanwhile Charlie is having a devil of a time getting started on the screenplay. In voiceovers he expresses his overpowering doubts and feelings of inadequacy–his hypochondria, his fantasies of self-improvement, his awkwardness with women. He’s a nerd in the Woody Allen mold, but without Woody Allen’s unspoken foundation of security underneath the expressed insecurities. Charlie’s got a twin brother, Donald, also played by Cage, who isn’t nearly as bright or literate, but seems happy-go-lucky and without a clue as he, too, decides to write a screenplay.
The playoff between the two brothers is surely intended as ego and alter-ego, as two sides of the same conflicted writer battling for control. It provides a perfect opportunity for very funny material about the movies as well as a voyage of self discovery for the hero. Donald is learning screenwriting technique from a course and seminar given by a guru, Robert McKee (Brian Cox). Where he is being fed rules and formulas for a successful screenplay, Charlie insists, "Writing is a journey into the unknown, not building one of your model airplanes." One of the rules that McKee espouses is never to use voiceovers; there’s truth in that viewpoint, but Adaptation proves its point that rules are made to be broken by those who know how–its voiceovers work perfectly and are very funny, indeed.
Charlie starts out believing his films must reflect his somewhat jaded conviction that people don’t change; in the real world there are no epiphanies, he says, just struggle without resolution. McKee insists that in a good movie people must change. He also asserts it must have a bang-up ending that people will remember as they leave the theater. With that setup, could Kaufman finish Adaptation with anything less? By the end of the film, the screenwriter’s story and the Florida story converge and their themes are as one.
Cage (Leaving Las Vegas, Windtalkers) does his best work ever here, playing both brothers, each with a carefully differentiated personality. His comic timing and nebbishy bearing perfectly fit the premise. (The technical aspects of his playing two roles onscreen at once are handled seamlessly.) The other outstanding performance is by Chris Cooper (American Beauty, The Patriot) as the toothless Laroche, a seeming redneck who erupts with intelligence and knowledgeability, a crude surface hiding a sensitive vulnerability.
Adaptation is rich in incident and characterization, confidently blended into a wildly original film that is both funny and perceptive about a range of ideas, delivered without a hint of pretension. It’s a small miracle of a film.