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Cogito Ergo Kaufman

 

Adaptation

Spike Jonze, USA, 2002

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: January 12, 2003

By Laurence Station

Adaptation is overflowing with ideas: deconstructionism; circular logic; the nature and evolution of life on Earth. In fact, there are so many ideas in the latest collaboration between director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (whose Being John Malkovich was one of the best films of 1999) that it's easy to overlook the fundamental point the film attempts to make. No matter how hard one tries, it's impossible to distance oneself from a creative work, be it adapting a best-selling book (as Charlie Kaufman attempted to do with Susan Orlean's nonfiction work The Orchid Thief) or writing about a man obsessed with ghost orchids in Florida's Fakahatchee swamp (as Orlean did in said book). Of course, if one buys into Adaptation's self-consciously neurotic worldview, Kaufman and Jones may not even be aware of this larger issue -- as we see Kaufman and Orlean resist involving themselves in their material repeatedly during the film, until it dawns on them that they have no choice but to include themselves in the subject matter at hand if they are to successfully write about it.

In Adaptation (as happened in real life), Kaufman is hired to adapt The Orchid Thief for the screen. He tries to simply write about flowers, but ends up instead creating a screenplay in which he not only stars, but in the ultimate form of ego extension, actually invents an alter-ego twin brother named Donald (both masterfully and distinctly played by Nicolas Cage) to play off of. Orlean (Meryl Streep) does a piece for the New Yorker on rare orchid horticulturalist John Laroche (Chris Cooper), and winds up expanding the article into a book that ties into her own observations on nature, passion and obsession.

Ego, its celebration and repression, is the key idea to understanding Adaptation. Does Charlie Kaufman embrace his unique perspective on life, the universe and everything, or does he attempt to stifle his more indulgent impulses in favor of creating a screenplay that is, as he puts it, just about flowers? Adaptation does a good job of showing Kaufman peeling back the layers of the creative process (does he focus on the theories of Charles Darwin, the quirky obsessions or Laroche, or the fascinated observations of Orlean?) until he reaches the logical conclusion: His adaptation of Orlean's novel must be about Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt a novel that is about the dramatically unrewarding subject of flowers. Kaufman's adaptation is a bust, but in his desperate attempt to make up for his inability to communicate the ideas of someone other than himself the film triumphs.

Before landing the assignment, Kaufman insistently tells studio executive Valerie (Tilda Swinton) that he doesn't want to cram in sex, or car chases, or guns, or characters having profound life lessons. Naturally, Adaptation winds up including all of these things, and a host of other stock Hollywood film clichés to boot (drug use, infidelity, bloodshed), which pokes fun at and revels in the big studio system that demands a safe, swift and profitable return on its investment. It's obvious Kaufman loathes and needs Hollywood. The wild notions in his mind simply cannot be translated to the big screen on a shoestring, indie budget.

Like Cage, Streep and Cooper give fantastic performances, she as a slightly aloof East Coast intellectual slumming in the Florida sticks for a story, he as an eccentric philosopher-hick whose main obsession appears to be changing obsessions on a regular basis. Jonze adroitly jumps between the story of Kaufman struggling to adapt Orlean's book (all the while watching brother Donald create a derivative thriller screenplay that becomes a hot property around town) and the budding relationship between Orlean and her orchid thief subject. Lance Acord (who also worked with Jonze on Malkovich) brings a loose, naturalistic style to the photography, deft but never intrusive, while editor Eric Zumbrunnen (also part of the Malkovich team) effectively manages to keep the various plot threads from getting too tangled together.

But there's no doubt whatsoever that it's Cage who's the star here. Adaptation lives or dies based on his interpretation of the two sides of Charlie Kaufman, and it's a credit to his skills as an actor that there's never any confusion regarding which Kaufman he's playing in any given scene. That he manages to establish an emotional connection between the two brothers (despite the fact that he obviously didn't act opposite himself) is a true testament to his considerable talent.

Adaptation is self-indulgent and too self-conscious for its own, or the audience's, good, like the person who points out his flaws before anyone else can to avoid seeming unaware of his shortcomings. It tries so hard to cover all the bases that what surprises there are (and there are definitely some interesting developments toward its conclusion) seem almost a letdown in comparison to the inventive developments that came before. And yet despite, or because of, all of this, Adaptation is that rare bird whose reach intentionally exceeds its grasp, but succeeds in spite of itself. The film wants to be about everything and nothing, desires to show us the history of life on earth in a hip, time-lapse fashion and yet display the comparatively modest wonder of a blooming ghost orchid. That it fails to hit all of its marks is to be expected. But in their championing of ego and excess, Kaufman and Jonze have once again proven to be among the most interesting and inventive writer-director tandems working -- and flourishing -- in Hollywood today.

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