Adaptation is a dazzling blur of a movie, wherein clashing genres and emotions swirl in a furious cyclone of audacity and ambition. Comedy mixes with drama, fiction blends with fact, and sheer cockiness dukes it out with startling vulnerability to form a strange, ungainly masterwork. The resulting story defies easy description, alternating seamlessly between free-form confessional, eccentric biopic, and balls-out satire. Love it or hate it–some viewers may wince at the film’s unapologetic indulgence –one thing remains clear: Not one second of Adaptation is boring.
The story is actually two narratives, stitched into one weird quilt. Both take real life and spice it with heavy doses of fiction: In one half, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), the oddball genius behind indie darlings such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, struggles with an immense case of writer’s block. Cage plays the outsized version of the real Kaufman–nebbish, sweaty, and insular. As if that wasn’t enough, Kaufman creates a fictitious identical twin. In many ways, Donald (also Cage) is the mirror to his brother: Jovial, obtuse, and supremely untalented.
This half of the film centers on Kaufman’s misery in adapting Susan Orlean’s best-selling book, The Orchid Thief. The book deals with Orlean’s interaction with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a kooky Orchid poacher who prowls the Everglades like a toothless, gibbering Renaissance man. Orlean (Meryl Streep) is drawn to Laroche’s unvarnished authenticity and unhinged passion: She’s spiritually listless and confused, while he radiates clarity and purpose. Orlean wants to care as Laroche does. As the story progresses, the two become unusually close.
As he pores over Orlean’s wandering, flowery prose, Kaufman struggles to find a compelling throughline. Yes, the book has a beautiful poignancy, and even ends on a note of melancholia, but nothing about it can sustain an entire movie. There’s no hook. Kaufman takes several runs at a screenplay, but nothing comes of it.
Panic begins to build within Kaufman, and it ultimately billows into a full-blown crisis. His relationship with Amelia (Cara Seymour), a potential girlfriend, is soured by Kaufman’s worsening neuroses. At the same time, Donald embarks on a screenwriting career, and his complete lack of self-awareness frees him from the emotional gravity that weighs down Charlie. Donald becomes a disciple of screenwriting hacks like Bob McKee (Brian Cox, a dead ringer for the real thing), who reduce the process down to simple paint-by-numbers. As a result, Donald crafts a screenplay entitled The 3, a dimwitted piece of clichés that–of course–attracts all of Hollywood. This sends Charlie’s twitching insecurities into hyperdrive.
The other half of Kaufman’s wacky little patchwork occurs in flashback. Here, we explore the unlikely bond between Orlean and Laroche. He’s a rascally, backwoods malcontent, possessed of a strange blend of brilliance and buffoonery. She’s a liberal intellectual, with a delicate emotional center. (“Your sadness–it’s beautiful,” an indigenous guide informs her.) Somehow, Orlean finds poetry within Laroche’s tragic history, along with his jittery blathering.
Adaptation‘s disparate worlds collide when Kaufman breaks down and attends one of McKee’s seminars. When informed of Orlean’s ethereal, esoteric subject matter, McKee is outraged: In a world overflowing with beautiful, sad, and strange stories, how dare Kaufman present him with two hours of cinema where nothing happens?! Crazy thing is, McKee has a point–and Kaufman knows it.
From here, Kaufman will deploy McKee’s get-rich-quick mentality into his own work. The final act becomes a salacious dimestore novel, albeit one elevated with Oscar-level writing. It’s Kaufman’s way to have his cake and eat it: He gives in to the Hollywood formula, while also satirizing the boardroom suits who demand it.
That’s every bit as meta as it sounds. Most of your enjoyment of Adaptation will hinge on how well you tolerate Kaufman’s assault of cleverness. His entire film is a teetering high-wire act between genius and pretension, and some viewers may find themselves tumbling to the ground.
With that said, even those who roll their eyes at Kaufman’s audacity can appreciate this film as a showcase of top-tier acting. Cage delivers some of his finest work, playing genetic copies who have developed completely different social skills. (In perhaps his biggest display of artistic hubris, Kaufman credits his fake twin as a co-writer.) As always, Streep is pure excellence. Her Susan Orlean is the film’s emotional center, with a quiet curiosity and emotional malaise that draw an interesting parallel to Kaufman’s own frustrations. Still, Adaptation‘s biggest revelation has to be Chris Cooper. After decades as a reliable character actor, Cooper gives a jaw-dropping turn as Laroche. He’s a shamanistic Ernest T. Bass–an oddball with undeniable charm and intelligence. All the headlining stars were nominated for Academy Awards, with Cooper taking home a well-deserved prize for Best Supporting Actor.
Still, time has dulled a little of Adaptation‘s luster. Kaufman’s narrative flourishes become a little more wearying with every new watch. If anything, they feel like an artifact of that time, when screenwriters tinkered with structure more aggressively. Ironically, the film’s strongest parts have become the scenes with Orlean and Laroche–the contemplative flashbacks that put Kaufman into a tailspin. Streep and Cooper mold their dialogue into a dreamy, off-brand spirituality. Kaufman drills to the core of Orlean’s beautiful melancholia, and it’s a joy to watch. In these moments, Adaptation finds a way to touch greatness.
115 min. R. Amazon Video. Freevee.