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Adaptation

dir: Spike Jonze
[img_assist|nid=1052|title=Don and Charlie, flowerpot men|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=446]
This is one of the best films from last year that practically no-one is going to bother seeing, I can just feel it. It probably has one of the least marketable premises of any film I can think of in recent memory, and doesn't exactly scream 'rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills' for your $13.50

It is still in my anything but humble opinion one of the best films of 2002, and Nicolas Cage manages to surprise me heartily by delivering two sterling performances, when I expected nothing from the man. Nothing at all. His last bunch of films have been dogs, so I had begun mourning the talent that Cage used to possess.
And what does the fucker do? He delivers his best performance in over a decade.

Don't you just hate that, when you've written someone off and then they come back with an incredible performance? There is something to be said for actors who can get back to playing an actual character in a film as opposed to playing minor variations on the same fucker they play in every film. In that case I shall be waiting with malice aforethought for Kevin Spacey, Samuel L Jackson, De Niro and Pacino to do something
new. I think you know what I mean. Cage is so good that I can almost forgive him for Windtalkers and Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Actually, I can't. The film version of Captain Corelli's Mandolin still makes
me so angry that I want to find director John Madden on the street one day and then proceed to beat him senseless with a copy of Louis De Bernieres' original book, which I know he never bothered to read.

Cage is very, very fucking good in this film. He plays two characters in Adaptation, that of the main role of Charlie Kaufman and also his twin brother Don Kaufman. Charlie Kaufman, the character, is a screenwriter who's been hired to adapt the Susan Orlean novel 'The Orchid Thief' into most likely a weepy "Bridges of Madison County" three hanky chick flick. Charlie Kaufman, in reality, is a screenwriter who was apparently hired to write a screenplay for 'The Orchid Thief', but who found it almost impossible to adapt, and instead wrote a screenplay about Charlie Kaufman attempting to write a screenplay etc etc. It's all kind of inward-spirally and recursive, looping back in on itself and also making perpetual asides to the audience revealing its own chaotic machinations and announcing them in the process, in some cases as they are occurring.

Apparently, Kaufman is nothing like either of the two personas he writes into the film, either Charlie or his fictional twin Don. Which is quite surprising, considering how far he extends the characterisation to
represent himself as a perpetually self-doubting self-hating chronic masturbator. Don, the more socially successful of the 'twins' is boorish and oblivious to the well-earned scorn of others. One would initially
think that Kaufman may have some issues to work out, which is not necessarily the case. He's just a very creative, very imaginative screenwriter who disdains convention and cliche, who is not afraid to write loopy screenplays in hope of creating something new in films.

Whether you loved or hated 'Being John Malkovich', or thought it was a one-joke film extended to two annoying hours' length, at the very least you'd have to admit that it was definitely not a film you'd seen before, with no cliches or easy cop-outs or cheesy screenwriting stock-standard formulas taking place. That was the work of our very good friend Charlie Kaufman.

As with 'Malkovich', Spike Jonze again works with Kaufman here, delivering what is essentially a less accessible but far more complicated and anarchic work here. In fact, some of Adaptation actually occurs on the set of 'Being John Malkovich' where we have the honour of seeing Charlie trying to engage and being snubbed by John Cusack and Catherine Keener, which I found very funny. Funny as well for me was seeing what I think was a real shot from the original shoot of Malkovich himself acting like a prissy little primadonna telling all the people on the set before a take (the restaurant scene) not to "futz" around. Always
suspected he was like that, despite my many years of admiration for
him.

The film is so self-referential and indulgent that at first I was
reminded of twenty or so Woody Allen films where he perpetually portrayed
himself as a narcissistic neurotic shrunken nebbish who the young ladies still
adored. The difference here was that the character (of Charlie) and
the characterisation (by Cage) goes further and is far more 'honest',
or at least feels substantially more genuine than anything Allen has done
since Husbands and Wives way back in '92. Another difference is that
Allen has always been craving acceptance and forgiveness by his
audience for his various crimes and misdemeanors, hoping that we'll see the
little twinkle in his eye and remember the days when we thought he was a
genius.

Kaufman doesn't have that same 'luxury', but he's got a far better
chance of being accepted (I mean the character, not the screenwriter, but
then again maybe I do). It's a complicated character, paralysed by
self-doubt and profoundly lacking in confidence, I at least warmed to him as the
film progressed, seeing his desire to be creatively original and to
stay true to the vision of the original book he's trying to adapt. Mostly
he wants to avoid or is incapable of cheapening the story by resorting
to conventional Hollywood techniques. Ultimately, the fact that we are
watching Adaptation and not The Orchid Thief represents his failure in
ulimately completing that screenplay, but his 'failure' is definitely
our gain, as I am virtually certain this film as it stands is fifteen
orders of magnitude more enjoyable and entertaining than what a
straight adaptation would have been.

Although, with the use of flashbacks (with helpful dating scheme at
the bottom of the screen) we do actually get to see the 'straight' story
of the writer of The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), a journo
for the New Yorker who pursues the story of an obsessive orchid grower
who tries to steal some rare orchids from a Florida swamp. Except for
the last part of the film which veers off into lunacy, this is
played like a real, non-self-referential story, and the film benefits
immensely from it. The interactions between Orlean and John Larouche
(played by Chris Cooper, who is wonderful, and for once doesn't play
a villain like he usually does) are believable and genuine,
representing people from fundamentally different worlds who connect for a brief
period of time through one man's obsession. She ultimately finds him
compelling because she envies his passion. It's not a complicated
story but it's done credibly which enhances both stories ultimately.

Chris Cooper / John Larouche is simultaneously hilarious and repellant
at the same time, as we see him through the eyes of Susan Orlean as
a somewhat loony, lonely backwater hick who changes obsessive
compulsions completely and permanently every few years. He is funny and
disquieting at the same time. I doubt either Susan Orlean or John Larouche, who
are real people (obviously) would find how the film portrays them to
be either positive or flattering in the end, which is a testament to how
Kaufman probably feels about them. We are of course privy to a scene
where Charlie fantasises about having sex with Meryl Streep whilst
masturbating, and thus anyone craving such a sight will be doubly satisfied.

The actual process of screenwriting is discussed, especially since
both brothers are working on screenplays simultaneously, one with greater
success than the other. Ultimately, when they collaborate the film
itself goes off the rails as everything that Charlie fought against
introducing into his adaptation gets funnelled into the film's ending (guns,
drugs, a forced love story, death, deus ex machina, redemptions and
life-changing epiphanies). It's obvious that Kaufman (the screenwriter) wanted to
take the piss out of these tired techniques, or at the very least show
someone that he could actually introduce them to a plot if he wanted to. I'm
undecided as to whether it works or not. I felt somewhat let done and
couldn't take it too seriously, but I think I'll dislike it less on
subsequent viewings.

I have no hesitation in saying that Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant,
insane screenwriter, and that he is one of the few screenwriters working
today (whose scripts actually get made into movies) willing to defy concepts
of genre and formula with the desire to tell a story, any story, as long
as it's inventive and somewhat amazing, even if it's in a low-key way.
He's also a very funny writer. I'm not sure if I'd shake hands with him
though, after seeing all the representations of his ego/alter-ego yanking the
crank so many times :)

As long as he gets to work with directors and producers who 'get' what
he's trying to do (as opposed to the producers who originally thought he'd
be able to do a straight adaptation of The Orchid Thief, what the fuck
were they thinking?) then maybe he'll keep coming up with brilliant stuff
(like the first 3 quarters of this film). Otherwise it'll be more like the
last quarter. And no-one wants that. Especially Charlie.

And Nicolas Cage, keep acting, please, as long as it's this good.
Otherwise just wait for that sequel to Con Air or The Rock that I'm sure
Bruckheimer is planning any day now, fucker.

It is a curious trip into the mind of Charlie Kaufman, a very funny
and sometimes scathing look at Hollywood and the 'process', and maybe it
looks at the concept of driving passion, the desire to experience it
and the absence of it and what that results in, both in life in
general and in Hollywood specifically.

Is it self-indulgent of a screenwriter to incorporate himself in a story? Most definitely,
but any time anyone creates a work of art and shows it to another
person you could say they are being self-indulgent.

Why? Well, if I write something and then show it to you, I am indulging
myself by believing that what I have created is worth your time and
energy. When is it justifiable? When you've put real work into it, and believe that
you've made it as genuine as possible and really tapped in to the wellspring
of creativity that you hopefully have access to. Does it work in
reference to Adaptation? Most definitely.

8 green powder snorting Meryl Streeps out of 10

--
"You and I share the same DNA. Is there anything more lonely than that? " - Adaptation

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