she thinks she does. Both individuals are provided with character arcs that warp those experienced by the people on which they’re based. And there are even more layers.
Adaptation, one of the best, and most original, films of the 2000s, is among the rare examples of meta-filmmaking that is not confined by the constraints that come when trying to enliven a clever cinematic idea. The more meta it gets, and the more it unravels, the better it becomes. Cheekily self-referential and outré, it tests the boundaries separating reality and fiction and creates an entirely new kind of cinematic product; it is a slapstick comedy that at once rises laughter as often as peak Mel Brooks as it does dissect the genre as a whole. Its endless subversion of comedy – and cinema in general – could otherwise appear academic done incorrectly. Picturing it structured like a more ticklish Godardian work isn’t so far off.
But like Kaufman’s previous film, the equally unique Malkovich, it celebrates its absurdity so enthusiastically that it becomes an aesthetic strength rather than a supplemental tonal quality, akin to the way Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers uncovered belly laughs in Airplane! (1980) simply by turning dumb humor into a style. We marvel at how Kaufman’s unwillingness to conform to the comedic norm is never off-putting, nor vulnerable to pretension. There’s a tendency for weirdo filmmakers, like David Lynch or Harmony Korine, to infuse their work with so much idiosyncrasy that we feel as though we’re watching their products from miles away, incapable of embracing what they have to offer. In contrast, Kaufman’s assemblage of out-there ideas is graspable – and painfully funny. In Adaptation, we have popcorn filmmaking for crowds looking for a challenge. An arthouse comedy that lets us join in on the fun being had by its writer and its director.
Its appeal, like in Malkovich, only progresses with the running time. In Adaptation, we are pulled into a sort of alternate reality set in the aftermath of the making of the 1999 movie that made the real Kaufman famous. (Cue riotous cameos from Malkovich and co-star Catherine Keener.) In this post-Malkovich world, Kaufman has been hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction novel wherein the author Orlean profiles John Larouche (Chris Cooper), an illegal orchid poacher. The book’s intriguing – Orlean’s primarily a staff writer at The New Yorker – and essentially reads like an elongated version of a feature that’d likely help garner any journalist a Pulitzer Prize.
Kaufman’s a fan of the book, rereading it so religiously it’s begun to bring him comfort more than a soft kitty cat ever could. But because it’s so academic, he’s unable to figure out how exactly to turn it into a movie. There’s no obvious story – albeit an emotionally powerful one – composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end, and much of the drama is simply based off Orlean’s observations. He’s stuck, and his hatred of himself only worsens the more it becomes clear that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. The events that occur within The Orchid Thief, as well as the events that went on behind the scenes, are treated as subplots.
The movie increasingly devolves into cockeyed fantasy, with Orlean becoming morally thorny and with Kaufman drastically upping his paranoia and self-doubt. The finale’s like a cinematic unleashing of rabid zoo animals. But the more abstract Adaptation becomes, the more we appreciate Kaufman’s singularity as a writer. As the film continuously reinvents the comedy genre as we know it, and as it manages to outdo itself over and over again by ingeniously manipulating the very notion of meta moviemaking, it doesn’t feel too hyperbolic to declare that this is the kind of movie that leaves you breathless. So many movies dazzle in their visual ideas, in their emotional pulls. Adaptation impresses through its intelligence alone.
How exactly does Kaufman manange to translate his ticks and his eccentricities so well? How does he manage to be so self-aware without this other version of himself coming across as a caricature of insecurity? Us never figuring such things out is perhaps a blessing: like any gifted artist, we needn’t try to get inside Kaufman’s head to better enjoy his work. To sit back and take in what’s being put forth is enough; to think as he does is too exhausting a prospect.
The ensemble displays a similar brand of genius. In dual roles (he plays both Charlie and Charlie’s childish twin brother, Donald), Cage has never been better: he asserts aptitude as a deadpan comic actor here. Cooper, toothless and seedy, is physically and emotionally generous and deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar; Brian Cox is thunderous in a brief performance as a motivational speaker who shakes our protagonist up just enough to push him toward success.
The biggest revelation in Adaptation, though, is the 53-year-old Streep. While well-cast, you could see how the role might be intimidating for an actress who’s so often been accused of being too clinical, too scientific in her approach to performing; it's so nutty. By 2002, Streep had built her name off emotionally precise performances to rival those of Bette Davis or Gena Rowlands. Great at embodying, she had until that point most often taken on roles that required her to wear wigs, accents, dramatic worldviews – but never had she given a performance initially rooted in realism only to turn drastically downward into wild psychological country.
In Adaptation, Streep is given the difficult task of acting as the face of one man’s obsessions, idealized for so long. The more Kaufman develops the central Orlean, the more it is revealed that she is not exactly this prim New Yorker writer but a middle-aged woman whose sense of reality is slipping. The way Orlean transforms in the movie could come across overtly broad-stroked in hands less adept than Streep’s. But unlike the other performances in the movie, Streep’s Orlean does not appear steeped in a sort of warped mockery of the cultural norm. Here is a fully-formed woman who incidentally loses herself. It’s one of Streep’s riskiest performances.
And Adaptation itself is among its decade’s riskiest movies – one false move and all the high concept metafiction might start crumbling. But Kaufman’s pen is so quick, and Jonze’s directorial hand is both so sturdy and willing to invent, that not a moment doesn’t astonish in its meticulous attention to detail. That the movie happens to be so insightful (look at how much an artist might suffer for their work, it says) and so consistently funny is just the icing on the cutting-edge cake that is this wonderfully weird movie. A
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
Adaptation December 21, 2017
The screenwriter protagonist of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) is trying to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. The screenwriter is a semi-fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, 1999;
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004), and the movie in which he stars is a semi-fictionalized account of the latter’s actual attempts to try to translate The Orchid Thief from page to screen. (This apparently happened in the mid-’90s.) Kaufman is portrayed by Nicolas Cage as a stout, balding ginger whose middle name might as well be self-loathing. Orlean is played by Meryl Streep as an intellectual who perhaps doesn’t know herself as well as