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By Alan Scherstuhl
Being John Malkovich, the comic brain-twister directed by Spike Jonze from Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, invited analogy seekers to cast their nets wide. Adaptation, the team's hugely clever follow-up, is a movie so extravagantly self-conscious that it bids to preempt analysis.
"Do I have an original thought in my head?" screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) wonders at the onset. Much of Adaptation immerses the viewer in Kaufman's neurotic stream of consciousness. It's a mind so roiled with anxiety as to make Woody Allen and Albert Brooks seem like veritable bodhisattvas. Nothing may be taken lightly: Charlie's identity crisis when ordered off the set of Being John Malkovich triggers a cosmic flashback 4 billion years to the origin of life on earth, and then forward, through the screenwriter's birth, to his lunch with a silky studio executive (Tilda Swinton). She wants him to adapt Susan Orlean's book-length report on rare flowers and the collectors who love them, The Orchid Thief.
In a joke that takes most of the movie to fully blossom, Charlie immediately begins to rant about all the commercially driven liberties that he will not take with The Orchid Thief screenplay. Against all odds, he is still given the assignment. As a reward, he gives himself a massive writer's block. Charlie's agony before the typewriter is contrasted with what he imagines to be the poised facility with which Susan Orlean (hilariously played by Meryl Streep) composed her book. The spectacle of Susan in the throes precipitates a flashback to her inspirationthe arrest of John Laroche (Chris Cooper) and several Seminole accomplices as they emerge from a South Florida swamp carrying four pillowcases stuffed with rare flowers.
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At this point, Kaufman has most of his narrative ducks in the waterthe trick is bringing them into the same pond. As Charlie frantically reworks and reworks his material, Adaptation takes on a generic resemblance to Geoff Dyer's 1997 Out of Sheer Rage, a putative study of D.H. Lawrence that becomes Dyer's account of his inability to write such a study. Narcissus may be a flower, but in Kaufman's earthier formulation, solipsism is synonymous with onanism. Still, Adaptation's success in engaging the audience in the travails of creating a screenplay is extraordinary. The perversity of this approach suggests the old joke about the aspiring starlet so dumb she came to Hollywood and screwed the writers. (At the same time, Kaufman's script ideas bring to mind the apocryphal story that, having read the scenario he commissioned Maurice Maeterlinck to write, mogul Sam Goldwyn burst from his office bellowing, "The hero's a bee!")
There's also an echo of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, although Charlie is scarcely as glamorous as Marcello Mastroianni's stymied maestro. "I understand nothing outside of my own panic and self-loathing," he wails, as the prelude to a telepathic conversation with Susan Orlean's author picture. Despite its mad intertextuality, time-jumping, and all-over parallel action, Adaptation is not entirely literary. Nor is its technique unduly flashy. As Being John Malkovich was, in good measure, a movie about movie acting, it should not be too surprising that Jonze is a talented director of actors, as well as comedy. Charismatically deprived of his front teeth, Cooper gives a career performance as a garrulous redneck genius; sensitively self-absorbed, Streep would rate a supporting actress nomination just for her scene presiding over a Manhattan dinner party. Cage approaches Oscar heaven with the arrival of a third writer, namely Charlie's cheerfully crass twin brother, Donaldwhom he plays as well. (The perfectly seamless presence of the two Cages on-screen has the uncanny effect of neutralizing the actor's naturally obstreperous affect.)
The despised Donald functions as Charlie's materialized doppelgängera fount of idiotic script ideas who swears by guru Robert McKee and manages not only to sell his first effort, a multiple-personality serial-killer thriller called The 3, for high six figures, but even pick up a winsome costume assistant (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the set of Being John Malkovich. Charlie is ultimately so desperate that he drafts his brother's assistance and even attends the McKee seminar himself, only to hear the great man (Brian Cox) declare, "God help you if you use voice-over in a script, my friend." After asking an embarrassing question during the seminar, Charlie manages to extract some advice from the oracle on the script he is writing about "disappointment."
By this point, Adaptation could inspire footnotes. Although the movie gives the positive-thinking Donald Kaufman a credit, he does not exist. I'm not sure if the injunction "Your characters must change and the change must come from them" is authentic McKee, but Kaufman ascribes it, with maximum pomposity, to the script guru and then uses it to wonderfully double-edged effect. Like 8 1/2, Adaptation is a movie that gleefully swallows its own tale. Once the action begins to follow Donald's script, we're plunged into a sudden morass of cyberporn, exotic drugs, car chases, adultery, and murdercomplete with another McKee bête noir, the deus ex machina. Or, perhaps the uplifting bromide and "happy ending" are the orchid in the swamp of narrative.
Nearly unflagging in its inventiveness, Adaptation is also a bit exhausting. Ultimately, the movie's title seems less a play on adapting Orlean's book than a riff on the evolution of behavior helpful to an organism in a specific hostile environment. Which is to say that this parodic story of Hollywood creation is full of universal, or at least 20th-century, paramount needswhich is to say, yours, mine, and the movies'.
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